Bob Dylan is my favorite singer/songwriter. Original, I know, and I’ll spare you the diatribe about his greatness as his standing among the 20th century’s greatest performers and personas is well established. He is immortal as far as the history of music is concerned and bears responsibility for some of the best musical and lyrical offerings ever produced. That being said, Dylan’s undertakings became more mercurial as his career went on, and in addition to having written some of the most powerful and groundbreaking songs of his generation (or ever), he may also have lashed together some of the worst I’ve ever heard. This ongoing series entitled Bob Dylan’s Bad Dreams seeks to bring those forgotten anti-classics into full view with naught but love and admiration. The idea is to keep this list going on a semi-regular basis until I run out of things to say.
Album: Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
"They Killed Him" has to be right up there with "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" for the worst Bob Dylan song of all time, and the only thing that prevents me from awarding it the title outright is the fact that it's a cover of a Kris Kristofferson song. I've never heard Kristofferson's version so I can't comment as to the original's integrity. Even so, Dylan must bear some of the blame for picking a song with such trite lyrics for an album that bears his own name.
Chronicling the plights of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus Christ, the song opens with a laughably elementary horn melody and lauds each character for standing up for the rights of the afflicted and then gasps in disbelief at their untimely ends with a group of Gospel singers piping up "My God, they killed him".
Calling this an exceptionally bad song isn't meant to in any way discredit the works of Ghandi or King, mind you. Both were indelible figureheads for civil rights and great men in their own respects (same for Jesus Christ but fictitiously so), and perhaps both Kristofferson and Dylan could be forgiven for falling without restraint into mawkishness. After all, the assassinations in question are certainly among the most depressing when one looks back at the fight for humanitarian rights in the twentieth century, but Dylan takes a hit for the bridge in which he enlists a children's chorus to provide a monotonous song its sentimental hook. There is hardly a more insulting move than this. The Rolling Stones did it with "You Can't Always Get What You Want," but there was a strange irony that somehow managed to forgive the move. Here, Dylan is clearly getting his rocks off acting as Messenger.
I've never had a problem with Dylan's voice, whatever the iteration, from the talky vocals during his folk years, to the frog-throated warble of his country years, or even the croaking he began to employ with advancing age. It was the luminary David Byrne who said, "The better the singer, the harder it is to believe what he's saying." But Dylan's nasally whine on "They Killed Him" makes him sound like a man who's given up, and it's difficult to believe this is the same musician that wrote "Highway 61 Revisited" or "Subterranean Homesick Blues".
So let's take a quick inventory: bad horns, bad Gospel choir, bad children's choir, self-righteous/mawkish front man.
What did the Eighties do to Bob Dylan? My God, they killed him (temporarily).
This article is cross-posted at Foolish Human.