I remember the first time I heard that voice. A suitemate in college, a Pennsylvanian, was blaring “Who Killed Davey Moore” from the back room, the nasally wail filling the air like paint fumes. From the front room, Ernie, from Perquimans County, North Carolina, couldn’t take it anymore. “Turn that crap off!” he hollered, to no avail.
I didn’t know who killed Davey Moore, but I felt as though the question was being directed at me. My reaction to hearing Bob Dylan for the first time was more intrigue than annoyance, a sort of surprise that anyone with a voice like that could get a recording contract, much less become famous. I was a latecomer to Dylan’s music, and despite a college friend’s proselytizing, it did not take at first. I assumed it was—like coolness—something for other people.
I don’t know when exactly it did begin to take, but within a few years I had Oh Mercy (1989) in heavy rotation. I turned to it first not because of Dylan himself but because of the record’s producer, Daniel Lanois. The album is moody, atmospheric, dark—haunted, one might say, by “The Man in the Long Black Coat,” who seems to stalk the borders of Oh Mercy with brooding menace.
Somebody seen him hanging around
At the old dance hall on the outskirts of town
He looked into her eyes when she stopped him to ask
If he wanted to dance, he had a face like a mask
Somebody said from the Bible he’d quote
There was dust on the man
In the long black coat
He seems to have walked right out of a Flannery O’Connor story and into a Bob Dylan song, bearing on his bent back all “the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force” of a world seething with dark mystery. He presages the apocalyptic melancholy of the album’s final song, “Shooting Star”:
It’s the last temptation, the last account
The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing
By the time of Oh Mercy, Dylan had cruised into a winsome world-weariness, and his voice was starting to show cracks. That album marks Dylan’s transition into a new vocal signature—the gargling sage. Since then, his voice has become so distinct that it is no longer possible to imitate it.
No other American singer has tried on as many voices as Dylan has. His early albums owed a lot to Woody Guthrie, both in terms of material and vocal style. Within a few years, Dylan changed tack, to the smoke-free country voice of John Wesley Harding and especially Nashville Skyline. There he sang from a different part of the throat, farther back, as if reaching deeper into the confused tangle of the American musical psyche. A decade later, there was the Budokan voice, then the albums from the 1980s, such as Infidels, in which the old folk twang from Greenwich Village is still just barely audible. But by then the cracks in the larynx were beginning to appear. By the 1990s the old voice was almost entirely gone.