Bob Dylan is 80 today.
By most, if not all, accounts, he is a deeply unpleasant little man who hates the world almost as much as he hates himself. (Like fellow aged “genius” Van Morrison).
People must find that sort of schtick very relatable or radical or something, because Dylan has a huge fanbase and some of that fanbase includes music journalists, who have been writing almost non-stop about the little blighter for the past fortnight in the lead-up to this, his eightieth birthday.
I’ve tried to understand what it is that Bob’s boys – for his fanbase is mostly made up of unremarkable men over 40 – love so much about his music, if one could even call it that. The man cannot sing. He sounds like an advanced-stage emphysema patient gargling gravel. In other words, he’s painful to listen to because he sounds pained himself. He whines. He growls. And, to make matters worse he insists on using that bloody harmonica, which makes every song sound mawkish and folksy – in the worst way possible.
If Bob’s focus has always been primarily on the lyrics – which is the defence his fans use to explain away his lack of vocal talent (and personal charm) – why does he obscure them with that blasted harmonica of his? Oh, if I had that harmonica I would shove it so far up your hole you’d be spitting it out of your gob, Bob. To be fair to him, for a second, as he is in his dotage, and I am in the rudest of health, the problem with Mr. Dylan is not the man himself, it’s all the fuss made of him by sycophantic, tone-deaf hero-worshippers. I get it, Dylan fans are passionate, but they need to stop calling him a genius, for Christ’s sake. If he was a genius, he’d know that he can’t sing, and more importantly, he’d know that a harmonica in the bin is better than a harmonica in the wrong hands.
Never a fan of folk music, I’d always wrongly presumed that harmonicas were, without exception, evil little bastards. Having seen the excellent documentary ‘Satan & Adam’ (on Netflix) about folk/blues duo Mister Satan and Adam Gussow, who played on the streets of Harlem in the 80s and 90s, I now know there is a right way to play the harmonica. It might be sacrilege to say, but Bob’s harmonica is in the ha’penney place compared to these blues musicians, who knew how to use its distinctive warble in a way Bob could never.
He might have written some 500 songs during his life, and there’s life in the old Bob yet, but I can’t help wondering what all the fuss is about. I get, to an extent, the love people have for artists like Bruce Springsteen, another great American singer-songwriter whose worshippers, a fraction of whom I am related to, can come off as a tad over-zealous. Springsteen is a nice man and a genial conversationalist, as well as a charismatic performer. Bob Dylan, god help him, is neither. Like his contemporary Van the Man, Bob is famously grumpy, and he remains as unwilling as ever to engage, with his fans or even the Nobel Prize Committee.
If you ask me, and nobody did, Leonard Cohen should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature instead of Bob Dylan. On paper, and that’s where these two famous lyricists shone, after all, Cohen’s style was similar to Dylan’s; indeed, the two are often mentioned together. But how anyone in their right mind can say Dylan is a greater artist and lyricist than Cohen was is beyond me. Before Leonard Cohen took up music and song-writing, he was a sometimes struggling poet in Montreal, an experience which no doubt humbled him. Much later in life, he became a Buddhist before dying – Nobel Prizeless! – at 82 in 2016.
I don’t know the first thing about Bob Dylan’s life, except that he spent a lot of time in cafes pretending to write things (this much we have in common, at least) and I don’t care to know either. His songs are second-rate and his delivery is whiny and pathetic. He has none of Cohen’s gravelly gravitas or Springsteen’s generous stage-presence. According to French singer Francoise Hardy, who Dylan tried and failed to seduce, “He wasn’t a very attractive man, and didn’t seem well in himself.”
He is an anaemic, miserable mystery of a man and if that’s how he likes it, perhaps his fans should leave him to it. He was the voice of a generation for a hot second back in the 60s, before he disappeared up his own hole. It’s hard to tell whether he is socially awkward, rude, or just playing the part of an ageing sixties withering flower-child, but Bob is no genius. As he said himself, “All I can do is be me, whoever that is.”
Well, Bob, it’s not enough.