You're 100% Wrong about Bob Dylan; Contrary to What Critics May Say, Bob Dylan Is a Great Singer- Better, in Fact, Than Christina Aguilera

By Weiss, David | Newsweek, July 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

You're 100% Wrong about Bob Dylan; Contrary to What Critics May Say, Bob Dylan Is a Great Singer- Better, in Fact, Than Christina Aguilera


Weiss, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Weiss

I have a perverse theory. Having worked professionally with a few singers and studied many more, I've come to realize that singing well doesn't necessarily make one a good singer. In fact, the very opposite may be true. Skill can kill unless wielded with care. One must have the humility if not good taste to sometimes conceal one's mighty arsenal, lest the mystery evaporate and the skeleton of rote learning remain. After all, even a seal can spin a ball on its nose with enough training.

Christina Aguilera, for instance, has put in the hours teaching her larynx, lips and lungs to do cartwheels and throw off sparks, yet by the end of eight bars your ears are exhausted by all the jiggled pitches and showoff runs. As Carmen McRae once said of Billie Holiday, "Billie sang the note that meant the word."

Enter Bob Dylan, a man whose vocal talents have engendered decades of commentary and comedy. Every Barstool Barney does a sarcastic Dylan impression, over-amping the old nasally/whiney bit while coyote-howling a snatch of Idiot Wind or Hurricane. Then all assembled guffaw in agreement: "Bob cain't sing no better'n my Uncle Jeff."

I was pondering these weighty matters while watching David Letterman's penultimate show, in which Bill Murray provided the classy clowning and Dylan the straight-faced crooning of a classic, the occasion-appropriate The Night We Called It a Day. No, not exactly Bette Midler cooing into Johnny Carson's ear while he's holding back twinkly tears, but wan and wistful enough to see Dave off poignantly without too much Nostalgic Showbiz Overkill.

The Times They Are a-Changin' would have been way too spot-on a choice, and besides, Dylan has recently released an album of songs performed by Frank Sinatra, Shadows in the Night. Let's just say Dylan's appearance knocked off two birds--he got to hype his current work and Letterman got the indisputable King of Kings to grace his next to last show with a wry reading of an apt standard.

Now, as for trance medium Bob Dylan summoning the spirit of The Chairman without tarot cards or theremins, well, let's just say that he has boatloads of courage (chutzpah?) to sing a song that typically demands precise intonation, fluid phrasing and timbral consistency. Those are qualities Sinatra had plenty enough of to waste, and which Dylan has traditionally, even studiously, ignored.

Ignored or simply unable, that is the question much bandied about re: Dylan's approach to vocalizing. Herein lies my perversity: It is my devout contention that Bob Dylan was as capable a singer in his heyday (and in his appointed genre) as Sinatra was in his. Both, of course, started by doing mean impersonations of the going thing, in Dylan's case Woody Guthrie and in Sinatra's an amalgam of Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday, the former for his cotton-candy sound, the latter for her raw emotionality and storytelling gifts.

Listen to Talkin' New York from Dylan's first album and admire his astounding ear and rapid, sure-fire phrasing, delivered in a dialect lifted whole cloth from the Zimmerman family's distant country cousins down Alabama way. Dylan was no farm boy, but he was a sophisticated stylist with an incredible gift of mimicry. As T.S. Eliot said, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal," and Dylan was the wiliest felon in folk music back in 1962. …

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