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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Wall Street Journal to Bob Dylan: Isn't it time to hang up the harmonica?

Bob_dylan I am a loyal fan of the Wall Street Journal's Friday Journal, which is usually loaded with smart and provocative arts and entertainment coverage. But when it comes to assessing a major cultural figure, last week's cover story by John Jurgensen was as hapless and borderline moronic as anything the paper has ever printed. Titled "When to Leave the Stage," it tried to make the case that Bob Dylan, at 69, should think about calling it quits, arguing that he'd lost his edge, not to mention most of his voice, and was in danger of tarnishing a distinguished career as he -- and a number of other music icons -- reached retirement age.

And how did Jurgensen bolster this premise? Basically by interviewing a doctor from the Johns Hopkins Voice Center, who stated the obvious -- that rock singers are especially prone to scarring or other damage to their vocal cords. Using this superficial medical diagnosis, Jurgensen dismissed the recent live performances by rock's single most iconic figure, saying that Dylan's voice has "now deteriorated to a laryngitic croak," impishly adding that Dylan now sounds like "a scatting Cookie Monster."

Jurgensen also interviewed a scraggle of disgruntled fans at Dylan gigs, such as Jim Waniak, who walked out of a recent show, saying "I know every word to 'Desolation Row,' but I couldn't sing along. What you're used to feeling from his music just isn't there." I hate to break the news to Jurgensen, but Dylan fans have been talking trash like that for decades. When I first started going to see Dylan as a teenager in the 1970s, the tie-dyed counter-culture cognoscente in the audience were already bitching and moaning about how Dylan had lost his mojo or butchered the arrangements of their favorite songs, just as, by the way, the early '60s folkies were all up in arms when went Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Dylan lives to confound his fans, and if you're easily confounded, you're not much of a fan. But I also disagree with a larger issue that Jurgensen raises: that there's now a whole generation of rock oldsters out on the concert circuit, unable to give up the ghost -- or live out the Who's "hope I die before I get old" maxim. After all, if Dylan should call it quits, why not the Stones or the Eagles or Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, who'd been out reviving "The Wall" on the arena circuit?

For me, the flaw in this argument is simple: Why should rock be held to a different standard than any other art form? Would anyone seriously argue that Philip Roth should hang up his literary aspirations, even though he's past 70 and still turning out great books? Should Clint Eastwood, who's now 80, put away his camera, even though some of his best filmmaking achievements have come in the last half-dozen or so years? What about Michael Caine, who's still one of the coolest actors on the planet, even into his 70s? Or Elaine Stritch, now 84, who won an Emmy at age 81 for her appearance on "30 Rock." Should she really quit the stage just because she's lost a few miles-per-hour on her fastball?

The obvious answer: Hell, no. The great thing about being an artist is that you get to live by a different set of rules than the rest of us mere mortals. So if Dylan wants to keep on humming and strumming, as long as there's an audience willing to follow his lead, he should keep the creative fires burning. As an artistic concept, retirement is wildly overrated.

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Bob Dylan on the cover of a new box set featuring his first eight albums in their original monorual mixes. Credit: Sony / Legacy Recordings

 

 
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I'm sorry, but he really does sound like a scatting Cookie Monster. He is completely incomprehensible in his performances. I think it's disrespectful to make that a front page story, but since you've insisted on writing this blog to counter it, here you go.

Yay! Great article! I don't think it's anyone's business when a performer or whoever should retire. A person retires when he or she wants to retire, period, end of story. Why should some journalist decide that time? I'm glad he feels he's an expert. Says a lot about person, doesn't it....

As for Bob, I'm glad he hasn't retired because I would have never have gotten into his music if he did. I first saw him at the end of 2004 with his "scatting cookie monster" voice and LOVED his concert. I wasn't around in Bob's prime, but the songs I heard of his from the 60s, I couldn't stand while growing up. I only went to see him because a friend wanted to go. I am so glad I did because I loved the sound of that cookie monster voice and much preferred it over his 60s style voice.

Whatever Jurgaoweihoweiahg, whatever his name is, writes, there are many others who feel completely the opposite. But really, how well known will this fool be 40-50 years after his prime time in his career....like, will that story be his big claim to fame? The irony of it all is that he had to make it off dissing iconic music figures.

Well put Patrick. The Wall Street Journal has not a clue when it comes to an american icon like Bob Dylan.

Joe Wheeee...aka...Mosley Duff

That's the thing about art. Its beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. For those of us who love, respect and enjoy the "art" that is Bob Dylan....we hope everyone else just stays home and not come to his concert. You never, ever got "it". If you did, you would always feel a sense of "home" when you were at his concert. Please just don't come. Stay uncool. There are certainly enough of us who admire the man that shared the stage with Martin Luther King at his "I have a Dream Speech" or played for the Pope and Presidents and World Leaders, or received the highest medals of distinction for his art from countries all over the world, or who just simply marvel at the man that endlessly travels and performs across the world. I am simply happy that he still lives and sings for me and my fellow true fans. To hell with everyone else. Give me my Cookie Monster!!!!

Wonderful article, thank you for this, and I fully agree with you.
I am a college student taking a History of Rock class. One of our assignments is to write a term paper, and as it happens to be, I am doing it on Bob Dylan and the impact his beautiful music and lyrics have made in millions of people, myself included. Of course he doesn not sound the same way he used to years ago but I know there most of his fans are still moved by him. Also, last night, Dec. 5, I went to Roger Waters' The Wall concert and I loved it, everyone at the Staples Center did, and the last thing that was going throgh people's mind was his age. So both of these great artists might be old but the power they have to inspire people, young and old, it still there so why should they quit? They should not.

I posted a similar response on my Facebook page on December 2nd: "I've always thought that rock took off because it gave the voice of authority to youth. I say its heros (like Dylan) deserve to stay in or go out any way they want. Who are we to condescend, as tho playing a casino is beneath them? Consider Robert Johnson or Woody Guthrie. Did they go out on their own terms? Did it matter? No..." Check out my whole post at http://www.facebook.com/BackyardBrand

I saw Willie Nelson a few years ago and it was possibly the worst show I'd ever seen by a serious artist, and I've seen thousands of shows over the years.
His voice was horrible, he was off key, his timing was bad and like Miles, spent more than half the show with his back to the audience.

Most of the audience walked out a little bit more than halfway into the set. I lasted a few songs longer and then was finally disgusted enough. Luckily, his band was great even though he sucked.

I saw Dylan recently, and he, a) sold out the venue, b) seemed to be having a great time, and C) left the crown wildly entertained. Add that to the fact that his most recent album of original songs debuted at #1, and the case for retirement is about as accurate as most of the tripe in the WSJ these days.

I agree with Goldstein's response to the WSJ article.

There are a ton of fans who want to see Dylan play today. Many think he is at a new high-point in his career. If you're not into it, don't go. As long as he's got the fans, he should keep playing. I hope it's til the day he dies.

"You brought me here and now you're tryin to run me away." -BD

For pure energy, check out one of Willie Nile's live shows. He bounces around like a twenty year old when he is thrice that age. Keep rocking Willie!

 
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