I. Contrary to popular belief, Dylan did not change his name in tribute to the author Dylan Thomas. This is perhaps one of the most common misconceptions in popular music. In an interview with Jules Siegel for the Saturday Evening Post, he states,
"Get that straight, I didn't change my name in honor of Dylan Thomas. That's just a story. I've done more for Dylan Thomas than he's ever done for me. Look how many kids are probably reading his poetry now because they heard that story."1
II. Perhaps this might come off sounding like a rant, or perhaps I'm just not as mature as most Dylan-philes, who can shrug off the ad hominem attacks on Bob Dylan's vocal capabilities. The grounds for the critics' statements are slim to none. No better, either, is the pandering, fence-sitter's statement of, "He's a great songwriter, but he just can't sing."
A few thoughts to ponder:
1. If anything, Dylan opened the door for others; The whole idea that you had to conventionally "sound good" by traditional standards was an idea with which no one had ever trifled before Dylan, and the music world has never been the same, since. This especially bothers me when I hear it from Generation X, and their (our) ilk. Granted, I have some sympathy, as most have been consistently spoon-fed a diet of mass-media, bland, blathering pop-music porridge. Regardless, to lambast Dylan for his vocals and then turn around and praise and/or selectively ignore the gutteral yowls of Kurdt Cobain or the whiny screech of Billy Corgan is a quick way to lose any sort credibility, in my book. Where would either of these guys been if Dylan had never come around? It wouldn't be MTV, that's for sure.
2. The actual change in Dylan's voice over the years could be a historical study in and of itself, and most Dylan critics have likely only heard a smattering of his work. I challenge the cynical to listen to some older Dylan, perhaps something off of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and attempt to find it cacaphonic. If anything, it'll probably sound, to the untrained ear, like any other country/folk singer you've never heard. Failing that, listen to the Nashville Skyline album, especially "Lay, Lady, Lay", which will blow to bits any preconceived notion one might have about what Dylan "sounds like". Finally, for what might be the best chronological study of Dylan, one might pick up a copy of Live: 1961-2000, and trace the changes. Yes, arguably, somewhere along the way in the 80s, Dylan's voice took a downhill turn -- but he was able to adapt and change, something he's always been doing, his whole career.
3. If Dylan has such a "bad voice", why would Emmylou Harris, a self-confessed perfectionist when performing and recording, agree to record Desire with him?
"To me singing with somebody is a very personal thing so I just tried to zero in on what he was doing and watch him very closely. I was having to sing harmony with him, watching his phrasing."
"Dylan's a very emotional singer in a different way to someone like Gram but there's such a real intensity in his music that it's so easy to get into lyrically and musically."2
4. Finally, all that is left to be said is that if you're listening to Dylan, and can only manage to focus on his voice, you're missing the point. Likewise, you're also missing the point if you just choose to pay attention to the poetry, or if you just listen to the way he plays the harmonica. Each of these individual facets are Dylan, but a single facet does not a gem make. Listen to Dylan for all of him: the enigmatic songwriter, the musician, and the storyteller together make up one hell of an artist.
See Also: The E2 Bob Dylan Literary Analysis Project
1 "What Have We Here?", (c)1966, 2000 Jules Siegel. http://www.cafecancun.com/bookarts/dylan.htm
2 "Cowgirl's Angel". http://home.planet.nl/~jsomers/cowgirlsangel.htm