Overrated – Bob Dylan

Ned Bitters

This week’s inductee into the “Overrated Hall of Fame” is … Bob Dylan.

You know, “The Voice of a Generation.” Yeah, a generation hopped up on LSD. Bob Dylan might be music’s most blatant embodiment of the emperor’s new clothes. Most of his songs are just a jumbled mess of nonsensical images and non-sequiturs, but people don’t dare pretend that they don’t have clue fucking one about what he’s going on about. It’s safer to just nod your head, look off into space and say, “Man … fuckin’ Dylan … dude’s a genius.” And I agree. You have to be a genius to parlay that mediocre body of work into godlike stature and an eight-figure bank account.

If his music were truly great, people would, you know, actually listen to it now and then. I’m betting that most of the blowhards who extol the music of the Great Bob Dylan haven’t listened to one of his unlistenable albums since they were getting blown in a mud-caked car on the way back from Woodstock.

Go ahead and name 10 Dylan songs. You might be able to do that, but I doubt it. How about singing five Dylan songs. Can’t do that either, can you? Of course not. Because he was shitty songwriter, a mediocre tunesmith and one of the worst singers ever. He doesn’t rock out, he doesn’t move you to goosebumps with profundity (save for one song, which will be addressed later) and doesn’t have the good looks to lube up the ladies or move men to uncomfortable man crushes. But somehow, he’s been sold as one of the all-time greats of music.

Even the most well known Dylan songs are overrated because they don’t say anything. We can all sing the beginning of “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s a good song in that the lyrics roll off the tongue and are easy to remember, the melody is wonderfully doleful and it’s got a catchy chorus. A song with those qualities doesn’t have to make sense. R.E.M. and U2 have made gazillions with songs that follow that same formula. I don’t know what the hell Michael Stipe and Bono are talking about half the time, but their songs and lyrics stick in your head. That’s poetry and great songwriting, and that’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

But people like to pretend that there’s some sort of great depth in those lyrics. If you subscribe to that school of conformist non-thought, please try to explain them to me. In fact, let’s look at the first few lines.

One upon a time, you looked so fine,
Threw the bums a dime in your prime … didn’t youuuuuuuuuu?
You never understood that it ain’t no good,
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for youuuuuuuu

See what I mean? It’s fun to say and it sounds good, but you know it doesn’t really say anything. The same can be said for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” The lyrics are cool, but they sure didn’t help end the Vietnam War or help bring about Civil Right legislation.

The phony reverence for the Great Bob Dylan’s poetic stylings remind me a lot of that Seinfeld episode in which Elaine proves that no one really understands the cartoons in the New Yorker magazine. But people fear they’ll show their literary ignorance if they claim not to get the ramblings of Dylan, so they go with the party line that the man’s one of the great voices of the 20th century.

I’m not claiming all his work is overrated. He did write one of the greatest songs ever; “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” That song’s genius lies in its timelessness. The message – that progress can’t be stopped, and those who resist it will be left behind and treated badly by history – not only still makes sense in 2008, but it would also have been an apt message in 300 B.C. and will still be right on the mark in the year 2347. “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a fine song that makes sense, too: When will humans stop fucking up in ways large and small? How can we figure out how to stop this shit we keep pulling? Good luck. The answer’s out there somewhere, but it’s sure as shit is proving elusive. Kudos on those two pieces of art, King Bob.

But the rest of his lyrics? I’ll prove my point this way. Below are three lines from Dylan songs and two that I made up in just a few seconds. I found Dylan lyrics online and just clicked on a few random songs to find these lines. Can you tell which are the original Dylan lyrics and which are the off-the-cuff creations of a martini-soaked Ned Bitters?

    A. Sister claims she sold her heart to a ruby-scalded ocean,
    But I tell her it’s no use because the stars are now in motion.

    B. Beat a path of retreat up them spiral staircases
    Past the tree of smoke, past the angel with four faces.

    C. Her eyes were two slits that would make a snake proud
    With a face that any painter would paint as he walked through a crowd

    D. Well I woke up this mornin’ there’s frogs inside my socks
    Your mama she’s a hidin’ inside the icebox

    E. On the flooded turquoise highway I saw the devil playing cards
    He just waved as I drove by, my numb stomach full of shards

Okay, let’s see how you did. The actual Dylan lyrics are B, C, and D. The just as full of shit Bitters rhymes were A and E. Even if you somehow made the right choices, and I doubt you did, at least admit that the inane couplets I conceived make no less sense than the whacked out babble of Sir Robert, Lyricist Emeritus.

I have nothing against Bob Dylan. He seems a like a humble, wry guy with a good sense of humor. He doesn’t walk around like he’s some sort of rock royalty. (That’s Bono’s job.) He just keeps making albums and touring. He doesn’t act in shit movies. He doesn’t trumpet some trendy cause-du-jour. He doesn’t adopt brown kids and hold press conferences about it. And even he knows that his “Voice of a Generation” status is a bunch of crap, because when he finally signed on to endorse a product, thereby sending the aging hippies into apoplectic rants about selling out, he went all the way and peddled for Victoria’s Secret.

Then again, maybe I’m the dipshit who just doesn’t get it. I wonder how Dylan himself would respond to my assertion of his overratedness. I guess he’d just quote one of his own songs. No, not some screwball lyric about striped horses and glass lilacs and rivers of green tea. He’d just hit me upside the brain with a line from “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”

“Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.”


Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at teacherslounge@hobotrashcan.com.

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