City Lights: Dylan worth the time, no matter the quality

It's no small feat to decode the lyrics of Don McLean's "American Pie," but most critics I've read believe "the jester" in verse three is a reference to Bob Dylan. That's the character, of course, who sings "in a coat he borrowed from James Dean/and a voice that came from you and me."

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 Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. At that show, and on many of his recent studio recordings, the powerful old delivery managed to cut through the occasional rasp.

Pull up his 2011 shows on YouTube, though, and it's sadly evident the rasp has taken over. Hearing him now is somewhat akin to watching a baseball great in an old-timers game — the legend remains, but time has worn away much of the glory.

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 — Chubby Checker, Connie Francis, the Shirelles — and then listen to just about any three great albums from after that time.

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

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


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