Here’s part of a long story by Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders sent by the Spider Man
“It was in late summer of ’61 and saw Dylan at a place called the Fat Black Pussycat. I thought he was a little hoody guy because he had a motorcycle hat. I thought that he was carrying a guitar because he heard that you could get laid if you were carrying a guitar. I walked by Folk City and saw him playing through the window but didn’t hear him. He had a harmonica on his neck so I thought he must be a good player. A week later, I was there on Hoot night and I saw him actually play. His phrasing was rock ‘n’ roll but his sensibility was traditional. Before his ’65 stuff, he had put together rock ‘n ‘roll and traditional and I thought these forms were incompatible. I never dreamed that they could be the same thing. I had a fucking epiphany! I was on the ceiling. I was mad with giddiness”
Note, this is Dylan before any records – it’s not rock & roll because he’s gone electric (yet), it’s just there in his delivery. I like that idea of the combination of apparently opposite things because it crops up in much of the best music of the 1950s and 1960s, although I have a feeling it’s less precise today. Nowadays it seems everything gets mixed in and the mixes are less surprising – although the music’s often fine too. But when it’s just two surprising (opposite?) things it’s like ‘real surreal’ – two unexpected things clash and somehow it works.
Anyway, lots of that correspondence yesterday had me thinking that the thing I really love about Bob Dylan is the integration of musical style, lyrics and delivery. For me it’s all of one piece, deeply expressive of that one person – and it’s why my favourite singer of Bob Dylan songs is Bob Dylan.
So that got me thinking about other people I like, who have sometimes/often/usually achieved that integration of personal sensibility, song-writing (lyrics, music, melody) and delivery (style, genre etc). I think it’s pretty rare but going way back I’d nominate Robert Johnson and Hank Williams and among the rock & rollers, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly.
After that? For me, at times at least, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Van Morrison, Arthur Lee, David Bowie, David Byrne … then I’m less sure because I know less – maybe Amy Winehouse in recent years?