Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dylan Pulls No Punches, Asks: "How Does It Feel?"

Bob Dylan
USA Today

My friend Bill Vallicella provides a link to "Bob Dylan's 2015 MusicCares Person of the Year Speech"! I wish I were successful enough to speak my mind like Dylan - I'm just picking out his 'best' criticisms (along with some of his praise) of people and songs he's dealt with during his long career:
[R]ight from the start, my songs were divisive for some reason. They divided people. I never knew why. Some got angered, others loved them. Didn't know why my songs had detractors and supporters. A strange environment to have to throw your songs into, but I did it . . . . Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn't think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down. You've just got to bear it. I didn't really care what [Jerry] Leiber and [Mike] Stoller [thought about my songs] . . . . They didn't like 'em, but Doc Pomus did. That was all right that they didn't like 'em, because I never liked their songs either. "Yakety yak, don't talk back." "Charlie Brown is a clown," "Baby I'm a hog for you." Novelty songs. They weren't saying anything serious. Doc's songs, they were better. "This Magic Moment." "Lonely Avenue." Save the Last Dance for Me[,] . . . . songs [that] broke my heart. I figured I'd rather have his blessings any day . . . . Ahmet Ertegun didn't think much of my songs, but Sam Phillips did. Ahmet founded Atlantic Records. He produced some great records: Ray Charles, Ray Brown, just to name a few . . . . But Sam Phillips, he recorded Elvis and Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Radical eyes that shook the very essence of humanity. Revolution in style and scope. Heavy shape and color. Radical to the bone. Songs that cut you to the bone. Renegades in all degrees, doing songs that would never decay, and still resound to this day. Oh, yeah, I'd rather have Sam Phillips' blessing . . . . Merle Haggard didn't even think much of my songs. I know he didn't. He didn't say that to me, but I know [inaudible]. Buck Owens did, and he recorded some of my early songs. Merle Haggard - "Mama Tried," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" . . . . "Together Again"? That's Buck Owens, and that trumps anything coming out of Bakersfield. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard? If you have to have somebody's blessing . . . . Oh, yeah. Critics have been giving me a hard time since Day One. Critics say I can't sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don't critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. What don't they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can't carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I've never heard that said about Lou Reed . . . . What have I done to deserve this special attention? No vocal range? When's the last time you heard Dr. John? Why don't you say that about him? Slur my words, got no diction. Have you people ever listened to Charley Patton or Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. Talk about slurred words and no diction . . . . "Why me, Lord?" I would say . . . . Critics say I mangle my melodies, render my songs unrecognizable. Oh, really? . . . Mangling lyrics? Mangling a melody? Mangling a treasured song? No, I get the blame. But I don't really think I do that. I just think critics say I do . . . . Times always change. They really do. And you have to always be ready for something that's coming along and you never expected it. Way back when, I was in Nashville making some records and I read this article, a Tom T. Hall interview. Tom T. Hall, he was bitching about some kind of new song, and he couldn't understand what these new kinds of songs that were coming in were about . . . . Tom, he was one of the most preeminent songwriters of the time in Nashville. A lot of people were recording his songs and he himself even did it. But he was all in a fuss about James Taylor, a song James had called "Country Road." Tom was going off in this interview - "But James don't say nothing about a country road. He just says how you can feel it on the country road. I don't understand that" . . . . [S]ome might say Tom is a great songwriter. I'm not going to doubt that. At the time he was doing this interview I was actually listening to a song of his on the radio . . . . called "I Love." I was listening to it in a recording studio, and he was talking about all the things he loves, an everyman kind of song, trying to connect with people. Trying to make you think that he's just like you and you're just like him. We all love the same things, and we're all in this together. Tom loves little baby ducks, slow-moving trains and rain. He loves old pickup trucks and little country streams. Sleeping without dreams. Bourbon in a glass. Coffee in a cup. Tomatoes on the vine, and onions . . . . I'm not ever going to disparage another songwriter. I'm not going to do that. I'm not saying it's a bad song. I'm just saying it might be a little overcooked. But, you know, it was in the top 10 anyway. Tom and a few other writers had the whole Nashville scene sewed up in a box. If you wanted to record a song and get it in the top 10 you had to go to them, and Tom was one of the top guys. They were all very comfortable . . . . This was about the time that Willie Nelson picked up and moved to Texas. About the same time. He's still in Texas. Everything was very copacetic. Everything was all right until . . . Kristofferson came to town. Oh, they ain't seen anybody like him. He came into town like a wildcat, flew his helicopter into Johnny Cash's backyard like a typical songwriter. And he went for the throat. "Sunday Morning Coming Down" . . . . You can look at Nashville pre-Kris and post-Kris, because he changed everything. That one song ruined Tom T. Hall's poker parties. It might have sent him to the crazy house. God forbid he ever heard any of my songs . . . . If "Sunday Morning Coming Down" rattled Tom's cage, sent him into the looney bin, my song ["Ballad Of A Thin Man"] surely would have made him blow his brains out, right there in the minivan. Hopefully he didn't hear it . . . . Critics have made a career out of accusing me of having a career of confounding expectations. Really? Because that's all I do. That's how I think about it. Confounding expectations. (Randall Roberts, "Grammys 2015: Transcript of Bob Dylan's MusiCares Person of Year speech," Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2015)
As I said, I wish I were successful enough to speak my mind - not that I would, mind you, I just wish I were successful enough that I could do so. Subjunctively speaking, that is, for Bill is right that Dylan's complaints are a bit off-putting, and maybe not in good taste since some of those criticized are still around. But his remarks are also fascinating, or I wouldn't be reproducing them here.

They're like gossip, I guess. Maybe we shouldn't listen to it. But we do, and we learn a lot from it . . . if we take it all with a grain of salt. For instance, Merle Haggard? Not as great as Buck Owens? C'mon, now, Bob. Really?

UPDATE: The LA Times transcript was incomplete on what Dylan said about Haggard, as I see from Rolling Stone:
"Merle Haggard didn't think much of my songs . . . Now I admire Merle - 'Mama Tried,' 'Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,' 'I'm a Lonesome Fugitive' . . . . I love Merle but he's not Buck [Owens]."

Of everything Dylan mentioned that night, this comment struck many as one of the most puzzling. Ten years ago, Dylan and the country icon toured together, and in 2013, Haggard told RS he was planning a Dylan tribute album. "I'm singing the ones that I love the most, with Bob's blessing and a lot of people's interest," Haggard said. "You know, he's just the greatest songwriter I think of our time. It would be a toss up between him and Kris Kristofferson." The album never came to fruition, but Haggard just cut a version of "Don't Think Twice It's All Right" with Willie Nelson. In response to Dylan's remark last weekend, Haggard tweeted, "Bob Dylan I've admired your songs since 1964."
Dylan was actually more positive about Haggard's songs than I reported from the incomplete transcript - though he still favored Buck Owens - but he utterly misjudged Haggard's in fact positive opinion on his songs.



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