It's no small feat to decode the lyrics of
Dylan is coming to the Orange County Fair this month, and if accounts of his recent live shows are an indication, I'm sad to say that the voice ringing from the speakers won't sound much like yours or mine. Whether because of cigarettes, age or just overuse, the nasal growl that gave us "Like a Rolling Stone," "It's Alright, Ma" and so many others has faded to barely a wisp of its former self.
The media, despite Dylan's status as a cultural icon, hasn't been shy about covering his vocal deficiencies. Previewing this year's fair, the OC Weekly wrote that Dylan "has, in each live performance we've seen in the past 10 years, rendered every awesome song of his in gibberish." About the same time, the Press-Telegram ran a story with the headline "Legendary musician Bob Dylan to 'sing' at fair." Note the quotes.
I have seen Dylan four times in concert since 1992 and heard his voice in varied conditions — nearly unintelligible the first time, surprisingly clear and robust the fourth, which was in 2000 at the
Pull up his 2011 shows on
So is there a reason to check out Dylan at the fair? Yes. In fact, I can name a couple.
The first reason is the bluntest: Whatever shape his vocal cords are in, he's still Dylan. If you don't appreciate the significance, program a selection of pop music circa 1962 —
Poetic lyrics that invite multiple interpretations? Subject matter deeper than boy-meets-girl? Songs that last longer than two or three minutes? All more or less unthinkable without Dylan.
And for all his hoarseness, the man still puts out terrific work. How many rock performers score back-to-back No. 1 albums of new material after their 60th birthday? Dylan has been known to lean back on oldies in concert, but there's a chance you'll hear "High Water," "Cross the Green Mountain," "Nettie Moore" or another recent gem at the fair.
For that matter, the show may be awful, too. Back in the 1960s, Dylan included takes on his albums in which he flubbed lyrics or broke down giggling; nowadays, he'll step in front of the microphone even if his throat is rough as sandpaper. That lack of inhibition has resulted in some of the most dire performances of the last 30 years, but without it, there's no "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" either.
So when Dylan takes the stage at the fair this month, his show may be poignant for the right reasons or the wrong ones. But in either case, it's classic American pie. Get it while it's still around, whatever sweetness may remain.
City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at email@example.com.
If You Go
Who: Bob Dylan
Where: Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Cost: $29.50 to $98.30