My daughter Lindsay (you know her as one half of local duo the Lovebirds) recently posted a CD review on her blog in which she described a very nice piece of lyric as having dylanesque qualities. Being her seventh grade English teacher, as well as a lifelong Dylan fan, I immediately offered her some unsolicited advice about not over using that particular way of describing someone’s lyrics. I went on to tell her that it is perfectly okay to describe a nice bit of writing as being just that, a nice bit of writing without imposing the heavy burden of the lyric having to meet a nearly impossible standard. I finished by telling her that the adjective dylanesque has, in my opinion, been very much abused.
The discussion that ensued has caused me to do a great deal of thinking about the way that so many people think that any great word painting set to guitar music is dylanesque. My first realization was that the impulse to compare another musician’s work to Dylan’s is extremely subjective. Just as we all hear, feel, understand, and respond differently to Dylan’s music, our opinion as to what compares to that music is our own.
Dylan is nothing if not unique, all of his own musical influences not withstanding. To classify something as unique means it stands alone, there is nothing that is the same. People are, however, prone to make such comparisons because we love to categorize things, and even more, we love to show everyone else that we “get it.” Being able to appreciate true genius and to recognize it in others, and then to explain why we feel that way, enables us in a small way to share in that genius.
This is nothing too dangerous or earth shattering; most of us are guilty of it, but this impulse causes a lot of people to express some very bad opinions. The most egregious, in my eyes, was the rush of so many music critics to label Bruce Springsteen as the new Dylan when Springsteen first started to garner attention outside of New Jersey. He plays a guitar; he paints pictures with words. The similarities begin and end there. Comparing the young Springsteen to Dylan is like comparing the early Lennon-McCartney work to Sgt. Pepper’s.
This is not knocking Springsteen or even aspiring young artists. Springsteen has written great music, and he never asked for the comparison. There’s a good chance he threw up a little in his own mouth when he read those first reviews recognizing the intellectual laziness they represented and the unfair burden of expectations that those critics placed upon him at the early stages of his career. To his credit, he has proven himself worthy on his own merits.
This has led me to the conclusion that the adjective is completely misused when applied to the idea of an artist being the “next Dylan.” This description of an artist or song is best when applied to the end results of a career and not the embryonic stages. I would argue that Springsteen’s career is more comparable to Dylan’s at this stage of his career rather than at the beginning.
Another thing that adds to the problem is that success breeds imitation. Many of the current folk musicians not only try to copy Dylan’s brilliant word play, they also often feel the need to affect the tremulous, nasal quality of his voice and his unique phrasing. Dylan’s much maligned vocal abilities are an important part of his music. The shaky urgency of his singing is like a plea. It often enables the simple majesty of his words to penetrate to the core of the listeners. However, the efforts of some lesser artists who attempt to emulate this type of wavering, gravelly vocal is about as appealing as an amputation on a Civil War battlefield.
Even worse is that a some of these aspiring singer/songwriters feel that they, by the nature of the job, have been charged to save the world. Dylan arrived at a particular moment in time that amplified the importance of his lyrics. It is well known that later he rejected the role of the Pied Piper as being too restrictive and with some consideration to the idea that he wasn’t up to the job.
Many of these newcomers missed that part of the story. It is obvious that they relish the idea of being the spokesman of the age despite their lack of any real insight or knowledge of history. Too often nowadays, donning a pair of scruffy jeans and picking up a guitar is felt to imbue the singer/writer with the all worldly wisdom and political economic savvy as Jesus, Mother Teresa, and Henry Kissinger put together.
I don’t say this to disparage the young, nor am I saying that a new “voice of a generation” will never emerge from the ranks of these modern troubadours. You can be sure it won’t be the voice of someone consciously trying to fill those shoes or someone who is “trying” to be like Dylan. That role will devolve on a person who is seeking to express their own voice, and that voice happens to be in tune with the times.
I eventually arrived at the conclusion that to be truly dylanesque can only mean that an artist inhabits an area on the same mountain peak and at least breathes some of the same type of rarified air as Dylan. This is, like I said, a very subjective opinion, but it is also a very serviceable definition and does manage to limit the use of the word in way that it would be unlikely to be used to describe the overwrought musings of every scruffy folksinger who manages to catch the public’s eye.
With this in mind, I’ll attempt to put down a few cases where the adjective might be used correctly.
The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” is probably as close as a song comes to being dylanesque. Often deemed to be one of the most influential rock songs of all time, it also undisputedly possesses the strong lyrical content that Dylan’s greatest work embodies. Ironically, it was Dylan, supposedly, who first turned the Beatles on to smoking marijuana, and it was, by their own admission, marijuana that fueled their creative juices when making Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The only problem with this comparison is that the Beatles occupy their own mountain peak in the Olympian pantheon of rock music. Is it right to compare one type of genius to another? The Beatles were obviously inspired by Dylan’s music when they created Sgt. Peppers. The result was arguably the most influential album in the history of rock music.
As far as individual artists go, I would offer up Al Stewart, the Scottish singer/ songwriter best known as the creator of one of the most perfect pop songs ever crafted “The Year of the Cat.” Like Dylan, Stewart started out as folksinger and later shifted into rock. It was the historically themed and generally overlooked album Past, Present, and Future where Stewart left behind his folk roots for good.
The album features several brilliantly written songs that set Stewart apart from most of his contemporaries. “The Road to Moscow” is as chilling in its execution and subject matter as Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll.” “The Last Day of June 1934” may very well be the song that future historians discover and use as the best evidence to refute the claim that all of late 20th and early 21st century American culture was one vast sewer. The song juxtaposes a lover’s picnic, a pre-war aristocratic party, and the death of Ernst Rohm whose death freed Hitler to take over the German Army and commence both the Holocaust and World War II.
On the night that Ernst Roehm died voices rang out
In the rolling Bavarian hills
And swept through the cities and danced in the gutters
Grown strong like the joining of wills
Oh echoed away like a roar in the distance
In moonlight carved out of steel
Singing “All the lonely, so long and so long
You don’t know how I long, how I long
You can’t hold me, I’m strong now I’m strong
Stronger than your law
Among contemporary American singer/songwriters, the artist most likely to be described with the term dylanesque would have to be the former mailman from Chicago, John Prine. Often labeled as the “the next Dylan” early in his career, Prine has the distinction of being mentioned as one of Dylan’s personal favorites. Singing in gravely nasal twang, like Dylan, Prine’s songs have been extensively covered by many other successful recording artists.
Some might ask how someone who injects so much good-natured humor into a lot of his songs might be included in the same breath as Dylan, but the answer would be that he is also the same guy who wrote “Angel from Montgomery,” “Souvenirs,” and the absolutely lovely lost-love ballad “Far from Me.”
Prine’s anti-war song “Great Compromise” is one of the most brilliant uses of allegory ever put into song.
Well you know I could have beat up that fellow
But it was her that had hopped into his car
Many times I’d fought to protect her
But this time she was goin’ too far
Now some folks they call me a coward
’Cause I left her at the drive-in that night
But I’d druther have names thrown at me
Than to fight for a thing that ain’t right
When I started writing this, I knew it would probably generate a lot of disagreement. This is all well and good. As I stated at the outset, the conclusions I have reached are very subjective, and all that I wish is that this article leads to some deliberation on what the adjective dylanesque truly means, and hopefully to a more selective use of the term when one is tempted to deal out an excessive amount of praise when describing every scraggily dressed young man or woman with words, tunes, and guitars.