Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan, Dylan

It’s tough having heroes. They test you, they torment you, and they let you down in the end. And folks who have Bob Dylan as a hero have it twice it hard. He has pulled so many boneheaded musical stunts over the years—Street-Legal, Bob Dylan at Budokan, and that horror of horrors, Self-Portrait—that it’s hard to believe he isn’t two people, one the genius who gave us Highway 61 Revisited and The Basement Tapes and the other the moron who thought it would be a good idea to record “Blue Moon” and sing a duet with himself on Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.” To say nothing of “Let It Be Me.”

All of the above cuts come from Dylan’s 1970 travesty of an album, Self-Portrait. It was impossible at the time to imagine he could do worse, but it has never paid to underestimate Bob Dylan, and he could and did do worse with 1973’s unspeakable Dylan. And no wonder: the songs on Dylan were outtakes from Self-Portrait and 1970’s New Morning, which was mediocre but got called genius by people still so in shock over the trauma of Self-Portrait that they took New Morning as a return to form. Imagine: songs too crappy to put on Self-Portrait! The results, as critic Robert Christgau put it, had a “morbid fascination… like watching Ryne Duran pitch [the famously near-blind pitcher with the blazing and potentially lethal fastball] without his glasses.”

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the album: the best I could figure was he’d been hit on the head by a fallen refrigerator, or had gotten his hands on some drug that immediately turned your brain to mulch. Or that he was tired of being everybody’s prophet and was deliberately laying waste to his own reputation by putting out the worst dreck he could imagine, and performing it like a madman to boot. The third is the most plausible; Dylan has made enigmatic comments pointing in that direction such as, “And I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know?”

But I, for one, never believed that story, just as I never recovered from Dylan. I tried to forgive and forget, the way everybody else seemed able to do, but I couldn’t. No one could release music this terrible and maintain even a scrap of musical credibility. So while I listened to and liked Planet Waves and Blood on the Tracks, I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, because I knew that other Dylan, the one who gave us “Take a Message to Mary” was still out there somewhere, the bad Mr. Hyde to the good Dylan’s Dr. Jekyll.

Anyway, from its godawful cover to its godawful covers, Dylan is a crapulent piece of product, and it should come not with a warning label but a radioactive symbol. It includes no Dylan originals, and in his defense it wasn’t his decision to release it; instead it was released by Columbia Records as a parting fuck you to Dylan for having the temerity to move to Asylum Records.

Be that as it may, it was still Dylan who recorded the songs, only one of which I consider decent. It’s opener “Lily of the West,” and it moves at a fast pace and includes some excellent harmonica. Not even the female back-up singers—whose arrangements are an embarrassment throughout—can ruin this one, although they try. Dylan’s in good voice, and shit—listening to it again, it turns out those female vocalists are ruining the song for me. So make this an album without a single song I find palatable. Dylan follows it with a lackadaisical take on the old lounge standard “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which is again marred by the female vocalists, to say nothing of some soothingly banal guitar and organ. Even Dylan’s harmonica at the end is subpar. As for “Sarah Jane,” it’s Dylan with attention deficit disorder, and I’ll acknowledge having a strange fascination with it. It features Dylan singing, “La la la la la la la” over some female vocalists singing the same and proceeds at a gallop, and while all those la las drive me crazy Dylan sings the song with real passion, and the band behind him doesn’t sound like Dylan hired it, geriatrics all, at some hotel in the Borscht Belt. One of his weirder songs? Yes. But at least not one of his worst.

Dylan’s take on Peter LaFarge’s protest song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is half-spoken and half-sung, and between the female vocalists and the gospel organ this one is pure treacle, and a disgrace to the guy who wrote as many great protest songs as Woody Guthrie. His spoken shtick is annoying, and his singing on the choruses is ruined by the female vocalists, and no matter how often I ask myself what led Dylan, the Bob Dylan of “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” to decide this song would make a good cover, I can’t come up with an answer. The same goes for Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” another tune about a good man drinking himself to death. Dylan comes close to pulling this one off with his vocals alone, but the female singers go right over the top, like WWI soldiers climbing out of their trenches and heading into No-Man’s land. I like the guitar, and the organ that jumps in here and there, but I hesitate when Dylan drags out “Dance” to absurd lengths, with those singers going at it behind him. Besides, the song has been covered to death.

Dylan isn’t in particularly good voice on the traditional “Mary Ann,” and between his pitchless approach and those damned female vocalists a perfectly good folk song is ruined. The guitar at the end doesn’t help either. Dylan then inexplicably chooses to sing Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and between his poor phrasing, one very annoying organ, and those female vocalists the song actually manages to annoy me more than Mitchell’s original. “A Fool Such as I” is a perky cover of a Bill Trader song, and while it comes as close as anything on this LP to a rock song, the guitar playing is uninspired, Dylan’s vocals are pure Nashville Skyline show business, and once again the female vocalists steal any edge the song might have possessed. Which leaves us with LP closer “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue,” which opens with some overbearing vocals, which are followed by Dylan and a Spanish guitar. He’s goes all out on this one, intent of capturing the spirit of the original, but he just can’t pull it off. There is, though, the wonderful moment—because unexpected—when the female vocalists come in and he joins them, and it almost works, but not quite. Bob Dylan, Spaniard—it should give us all an appreciation of how well Elton John managed to pull off all those Americana-based tunes. Instead it just annoys, and marks the perfectly insufferable close to a perfectly incompetent LP.

I listen to the album, and it leaves me at a loss. Recorded in 1970, only three short years after the stunning genius of The Basement Tapes, it possesses not a whit of their spirit or camaraderie or greatness. What happened to the man? Did he fall on his head? Did the Mob threaten to kill him if he continued to write songs of pure genius? Was he simply burned out, all that meth over all those years having finally put paid to his otherworldly knack for conjuring up greatness? Or was he really writing his fans a fuck off memo on vinyl?

Because in three years he went from being the man I consider the greatest songwriter of all time to a hack, and a not very good hack at that. At least a good hack can make something out of somebody else’s songs. Dylan couldn’t. Instead he hid behind them, for mysterious reasons that will probably never be divulged or understood. And that’s too bad, because like I say I never trusted him after that, which is perhaps for the best. “Don’t follow leaders,” he sang, and with Self-Portrait and Dylan I finally heeded his sage advice. Still, I miss him. I will always miss him. Goodbye Bob. Once upon a time I loved you. But bullshit is not a loving tongue.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
F

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