Something Is Happening But Mr. Yardley Don't Know What It Is

Washington Post columnist gets Bob Dylan all wrong, and makes a fool of himself.

(Editor's Note: The "Sunday Morning" essay is an opinion piece and does not reflect the views of SonicNet Inc. or its affiliated companies.)

Editorial Director Michael Goldberg writes:

I was sitting in a cafe in Washington, D.C., recently, sipping coffee,

looking through the Washington Post for something to read when

I came across this: "If Bob Dylan were any good he'd be Steve Forbert,

yet while Dylan is (as the hackmeisters put it these days) an

'American icon,' Forbert travels the back roads, appearing before

small audiences at small places."

I was flabbergasted. I checked the newspaper I was reading, thinking

perhaps I was mistaken, that this wasn't the Washington Post

but rather some throwaway. "If Bob Dylan were any good, he'd be Steve

Forbert," columnist Jonathan Yardley wrote. Could a writer be so

ignorant as to actually type those words?

Bob Dylan is one of the most important songwriters of all time.

"Blowin' in the Wind" (RealAudio excerpt),

"Like a Rolling Stone," "Positively Fourth Street," "To Ramona,"

"Mr. Tambourine Man," "Ballad of a Thin Man" (RealAudio excerpt)

and dozens and dozens more songs constitute a staggering body of work.

But Dylan isn't just a songwriter. He is one of the most

idiosyncratic singers of the 20th century. But if his voice is unusual,

it is unusual in the greatest of ways. I have listened to such albums

as Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde over and

over since their release in the mid-'60s. As a singer, Dylan was in

his prime in the '60s, and he delivered stunning vocal performance

after stunning vocal performance on those albums.

A legendary songwriter, a great singer and a great record maker. Much

has been made of Dylan's one-take approach to recording. Some people

point to certain flaws on his records. Which is beside the point.

Dylan makes records that signal truth (writ large, as the writer R. Meltzer

would put it), and truth has nothing to do with hitting every note.

I defy anyone to listen — really listen — to the electric

set from Dylan's Live 1966, which ends with a rousing "Like a

Rolling Stone" (RealAudio excerpt),

and then write off Bob Dylan.

Dylan's influence began in the '60s, when the Beatles and the Rolling

Stones heard his smart, literate, poetic lyrics and realized you could

write about other things than love, and you could write about them in

a sophisticated manner. Since then, thousands of artists have been

influenced by Dylan. Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, U2, Patti Smith,

R.E.M., NIN, Wyclef Jean, Elvis Costello ... it's a long, long list.

Washington Post's Yardley can't have paid a whole lot of

attention to the work of Bob Dylan (or at least the important work,

which I think ended with Blood on the Tracks, released in 1975).

While the columnist acknowledged Dylan wrote some "wonderful songs,"

he wrote in the same sentence that "too often he settled for muddy,

arch, self-consciously enigmatic and 'poetic' lyrics that were exactly

suited to the temper of the 1960s and 1970s, in which empty,

logorrheic protest carried greater weight than artistic substance."

And, he wrote, Dylan "always had a keen, cold-eyed sense of the market"

and he "climbed aboard rock at exactly the right moment and anticipated ...

the country boom just as it was about to take off."

First of all, whatever Dylan's motivation to record what stand as some

of the greatest albums of all time is irrelevant. The work stands. The

work continues to move people decades after it was created. And I

believe people will be listening to Dylan long after Mr.Yardley and I

are long gone. Some will have their lives changed by listening to

Dylan, as mine was, as the lives of some of my friends were.

Let me add that I don't believe Dylan recorded anything simply to make

a buck. Nor do I think he went electric, or shifted to a country style

for a time, because he thought that would be the next trend. And

anyone who knows anything about Dylan would be embarrassed to write

words to that effect.

But what about Steve Forbert? He made a splash with Alive on Arrival

in 1978 and joined a line of singer/ songwriters who have been heralded

as new Dylans. That debut album is excellent, worth seeking out. And Forbert

got a lot of media attention for it. I recall Rolling Stone

raving about the album.

Unfortunately, Forbert was pretty much a one-trick pony.

The follow-up, Jackrabbit Slim (1979), which included the hit

"Romeo's Tune," was good, but not quite up to Alive on Arrival,

and things went downhill from there. I wrote about Forbert at the time

and hoped he was going to be an important artist. But it didn't work

out that way. I'm sure he can still put on a good show, and he's got

some solid songs in his repertoire, but at this late date, comparing

him to Dylan is simply ridiculous.

Yardley complained that Forbert "hasn't gotten through to the American

public." Maybe that isn't because, as Yardley wrote, "vox pop is as

wrong as can be." Maybe it's because Steve Forbert had just one good

album in him. Maybe it's also because Forbert didn't speak to many

people in a way that made those who heard him care what else he had to

say.

Dylan did speak to people, and not just to rock critics and

intellectuals. One of his greatest songs, "Like a Rolling Stone," was

played on top-40 radio all over America.