By Tony Attwood
Time.com, pitching itself as the absolute arbiter of taste, style and quality announced “Street Rock” as “one of the 10 worst Dylan songs of all time,” which perhaps tells us more about Time’s view of their place in the world than about Bob Dylan and his music.
The problem is that artists normally don’t have every little sketch released and then compared to their greatest works. Because self-evidently a lot of what Dylan has done are sketches and explorations, they are not all “Rolling Stone” or “Tambourine Man” or “Visions”.
For the great composers of the classical romantic tradition the early pieces and experimental sketches are there for researchers to listen to; we don’t say that a piece written by the five year old Mozart was “the worst thing he ever wrote,” because no one is concerned with best or worst.
But today best and worst compositions are arbitrarily selected by self-opinionated and self-appointed critics who announce their decisions with a fanfare that attempts to suggest that this is what it is all about.
Yet to do this leads us endlessly down the wrong path. Oddments like this song, should, in my view, be used to give us insights into Dylan’s interests and explorations, rather like the early works of a great master put on display in an art gallery, on view but consigned to the basement where those really interested will go, while allowing the passing visitor a chance to ignore them and focus on the universally acclaimed works.
And I can say this with some feeling, because although my contributions to musical composition don’t go beyond songs I’ve written and sung in folk clubs, and are clearly the work of an enthusiastic but hardly exceptional amateur, I have written a number of books some of which have sold quite well. I don’t mind being judged by them (not that anyone is particularly interested in so doing) but I would be bemused and horrified if early sketches of books, rough drafts, and worse still the books that I started but never even finished because I realised they were going nowhere, not only started to appear but then also started being criticised.
They won’t of course because no one is interested in my career – and nor should they be, but the point is all creative people in all genres, both famous and totally obscure, create sketches, play with ideas, work things out, go down blind alleys, have a bit of fun…
Dylan obviously doesn’t mind – at least to some degree – us hearing his early works since he gave his ok to the complete basement tapes being released and there is some very rough incomplete stuff there – but those of us who have listened to all the tracks on the Complete version do so, surely, in the understanding, that for every Wheels on Fire there are ten sketches that led nowhere.
Rolling Stone in reviewing “Street Rock” wrote the ironic headline “Is Bob Dylan Hip-Hop’s Godfather?” and yes, that’s a bit of fun, for they made the point that “hip-hop and Dylan were both gestated in New York, distrust the government, aren’t fond of using their birth names, and have a pretty evocative way with words. And although Dylan recently told Street Newspaper that he doesn’t really listen to rap all that much, he did admit, “I love rhyming for rhyming sake. I think that’s an incredible art form.”
And yes that it fairly obvious with Subterranean Homesick Blues – which has been called “the very first rap song ever” as it is found “distilling bohemian counterculture, war paranoia and the ongoing civil rights struggle into a two-minute barrage of fascinating wordplay.”
The story here is that Dylan used some of Blow’s backing singers and in return for that favour he contributed the intro to “Street Rock”, which opened the album Kingdom Blow.
In Chronicles, Volume 1, Dylan states that Blow introduced him to rap, and he became a fan of Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Ice T and NWA commenting “These guys weren’t standing around bullshitting, they were beating drums, tearing it up, hurling horses over cliffs. They were all poets and knew what was going on.”
Mike in reply said of Dylan, “He’s one of the first b-boys, if not the first. What more to say?”
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues is sampled on “Finger Lickin’ Good” — although Bob’s copyright company apparently charged $700, apparently having initially asked for $2,000.
So back to Street Rock. Bob Dylan does the opening bit and pops back in from time to time. There is only an assumption Bob wrote this, but since he mentions it particularly in Chronicles we might take it to be so.
I’m not trying to be the absolute arbiter of what counts as a Bob Dylan composition and what doesn’t, it is just my thought, there’s a bit of original Dylan so it counts as a co-composition for me. You can, of course, make up your own mind.
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