DO BELIEVE THE HYPE: Bob Dylan

In many ways, the Picky Bastards writers are on a never-ending quest to enforce their music tastes upon each other.

So welcome to Do Believe The Hype – a series where an writer introduces a beloved artist to another writer who has yet to be convinced by their legend.

Today it’s Fran Slater’s turn to convince Matt Paul of the genius of Bob Dylan, with a carefully curated 10-track playlist (detailed below).

I have lost count of the number of times that Fran has been surprised when I explain that I have never really listened to Bob Dylan. So finally he gets to force me to listen, with this bespoke playlist to show me what all the fuss is about. 

So to start with I’m going to explain my history or lack thereof with Dylan. I know that I’ve listened to some of his music. He’s such a legend that he is inescapable. At university both Fran, and my girlfriend of the time were big fans. But it was always passive for me. 

I’ve never really been able to name a song. And to be honest I would often just get him confused with his contemporary Johnny Cash. Blasphemous, maybe. But to be honest that is how I often feel about folk music. It’s that age old Picky Bastards dilemma. My musical priority has always been music first, lyrics second.

So then we get to Mr. Dylan. He’s obviously the best in the game. He has fucking won an Nobel Prize for his writing. So if anyone has the lyrical content to make me stop and listen, it should be him, right?

The Playlist

Here are Fran’s choices:

  • Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
  • The Times They Are A-Changin
  • It Ain’t Me Babe
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues
  • Visions of Johanna
  • Masters of War
  • Shelter From The Storm
  • Hurricane
  • Gotta Serve Somebody
  • A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

To begin with I recognize 1 or 2 titles. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. Maybe ‘Hurricane’. Obviously ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ has a Radiohead link. But we shall see if it goes deeper than the title. 

Diving in. My first impression of the playlist as a whole is there is a little more variety than perhaps I expected. Pretty stupidly, I was expecting another 9, slightly less iconic ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. Instead there’s tracks like the Bluesy ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ or the Rockier ‘Visions of Johanna. My interest was piqued. 

After a few passes of the playlist there were a few songs that stuck out to me. Firstly there was Hurricane. Musically this was maybe the most dynamic song on the list. So maybe it is unsurprising I grabbed into this. But it’s not just that as the storytelling is fantastic. It is dense and fast-paced, so it took a few listens to piece together the harrowing tale of corruption,  and the wrongful arrest of Rubin ‘The Hurricane’ Carter. Dylan tells this painful tale to illustrate the persecution of black people: “That’s just the way things go, If you’re black, You might as well not show up on the street”. It’s a topic that unfortunately remains relevant all these decades later.

Also, sticking out to me was ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. This caught me by surprise as it is one of the folkier numbers. But I think it suits, as it is the most personal feeling song on the list. The bare instrumentation, and rough recording adds to the atmosphere of this lament. The sorrowful tone as he declares that he is not the right fit for his partner, is something that I haven’t really heard before. 

Throughout this I am somewhat torn about how I feel about Dyaln’s voice. I know folks love it. The gruff and gravelly timbre. And there are times it really works. At times though It just gets annoying. I think it’s when Dylan pushes it a little bit, it gets almost nasally. In Subterranean Homesick Blues. His singing is freewheeling and combined with a ramshackle backing, it all feels almost like a joke. Something I would see on Looney Tunes. He’s such a cultural touchstone, that maybe I have seen him parodied in popular culture and now sitting with the original all I can do is associate it with the imitations. But hey. That’s the impression I got stuck on. 

The low point for me was the smooth Blues Rock of ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’.The music is just so slippery with it’s wandering melody. Again it crosses the line into feeling pretty cheesy. It’s also the only song on the playlist where the lyrics falter for me. I hate the message. I don’t want to serve somebody. All round it just feels a little heavy handed. 

Do I Believe The Hype?

So we made it through to the end. And I can say that I have some new songs that I really like. I can also confirm, Bob Dylan is an incredibly talented lyricist. I don’t think you needed me to confirm this fact, but there you go. His storytelling is rich, evocative and can really transport you into the tale he is telling. 

I purposefully didn’t talk about ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. I know this song well. It is such a charged anthem for change. It seems like a perfect example of his values and the role music and art can play in driving forward culture. Fran’s playlist demonstrates that this wasn’t just a fluke, and that he is a historically important figure for music and beyond (if that was in doubt). That has potentially become a double-edged sword. As lesser artists ape Dylan, it can dilute and detract from the original material, for someone who comes to that second.

I find myself hesitant when coming back to the question of whether I believe the hype. I can lawd his skills and talent. I really like the odd song. I can see his place in history. But for me he will mostly remain a necessary antiquity. And that is pretty much it.

Words by Matt Paul

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