As I drove home in the snow yesterday, a review of Bob Dylan’s new album on NPR reminded me that every evaluation of everything is contextual, including my opinion of the review.
The road conditions were suddenly terrible, meaning I couldn’t make it to Russ’s house as planned, so maybe I was grumpy, making all kinds of right-turn detours just to get back to my neighborhood. I’ll admit my hackles went up for no apparent reason when the reviewer dismissed Rod Stewart as a “standards hack.” I don’t listen to Rod Stewart, whereas I do have some Dylan albums and just spent a bunch of money to hear him in concert. But I scoffed audibly when the reviewer claimed how because Dylan recorded live in-studio the old-fashioned way, in the same room with his musicians, his renditions were truer to the “smoke-filled rooms” where the songs were first heard. Was there smoke in the studio? And also, Rod Stewart’s voice sounds like he’s smoked a bunch, doesn’t he get any points for that?
Why does Dylan deserve the automatic assumption that there’s deep emotion to his voice just because he switches up the melody line in “What’ll I do”? Maybe if I listen to the song ten times, I’ll be able to tell for sure that it’s a deliberate interp and not just a casual evasion of the notes, but I don’t know that my ear could take it. A deep knowledge of the American Songbook doesn’t mean your singing is any more in tune.
It was like the reviewer needed to give us all this evidence of Dylan’s creds so we wouldn’t laugh when we heard the clips. But I laughed anyway, or would have had I not been gripping the steering wheel like a clamp, praying not to get rear-ended or rear-end someone else. I smiled and gave at least one “Oh my God” to Dylan’s voice wobbling and wavering its way through “Autumn Leaves.”
Dylan’s got great taste, I give him equal points to Rod Stewart’s cigarette nodes for that. Dad had a cassette with seventeen versions of “Autumn Leaves” on it. It is one of the most perfectly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Who wouldn’t want to sing it? I started singing it on my dog walk after safely thank God making it home and getting the dog around the block. And singing it made me think of my dad and his seventeen versions, and suddenly I wanted to call my brother and sob, “I miss Dad, I miss Dad,” but didn’t because I didn’t want him thinking I’m emotionally unstable due to childlessness or hormones.
Luckily I saw Lake and her owner coming up the sidewalk, and pulled it together in time to talk about the weather and our shoulders and the shoveling. And by the time they passed, the dad sadness was gone.
That’s a good thing about longterm grief. It’s just as intense when it hits, all images of Dad and his gentle smile and excellent taste and the longing to just be in a room with him, asking what he thinks of the new Dylan album, but it’s more polite than new grief. Dad and Uncle Ralph used to debate whether certain vocalists were singers or crooners. Singer meant a serious artist, whereas a crooner, like Dean Martin, was just someone who sold a song with style. I think they used to argue over which one Sinatra was.
I think Dylan must fall into the singer category, whereas someone like Stewart only gets to be a crooner. But also, and I’ll bet this never happened in Dad and Ralph’s day, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone get the singer tag just because I couldn’t bear listening to his music long enough to decide for sure.