I've never heard Bob Dylan before. I mean, there's "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down", which pops up on Biograph, but that's the only song I've ever heard from Bob Dylan's debut album. To be honest, this isn't something that particularly bothers me.
Bob Dylan has always occupied a weird place in Dylan's legend for me. Leaving aside the fact that it's his debut album, I've never really seen any selling points in its favor. It's one of a handful of Dylan albums that sounds more beholden to established musical styles (although I do understand this was a deliberate move) without establishing any distinctive voice. I mean, there IS a distinctive voice - Bob's - but I hope you get what I mean. This is an album of traditionals, played and sung traditionally. The joke John Hammond (producer of the album) made is that this album cost $402 to record, and it's a wonder that it actually cost more.
I will also admit that Dylan's folk period is the one I find least interesting musically. I mean, I love the acoustic albums, and I could listen to "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" or "I Don't Believe You" any time, but for the most part I have trouble playing Freewheelin' or Another Side all the way through without losing patience.* This could be my own ADD-driven failing; I don't dispute that Freewheelin' is a stone cold classic or that Another Side doesn't have some great songs. I think what it comes down to re: me and Bob Dylan is that Dylan's catalog is stuffed to the brim with incredibly original and aurally interesting music, and the idea of hunkering down with a collection of traditionals and a few decent originals doesn't hold much interest for me.
* and that's even BEFORE I get to "Ballad in Plain D"
This is not to say, of course, that there isn't some interest to be had in listening to this album. I'm of the opinion that EVERY Dylan album has at least some interest; even the much-maligned Self-Portrait has the beautiful "Copper Kettle" on it, as well as some songs that defy belief*. And Dylan's first album, in that respect, has interest simply in the place in time that it occupied, and how it's very much a product of those times. You get flashes of Dylan's later genius in spots, and the songs themselves are performed well, but my main interest in the album is purely from a historical standpoint (as opposed to Freewheelin', a mere year and album later - think of that! - which is interesting from both a historical and musical standpoint).
*"All The Tired Horses" in a good way, "In Search of Little Sadie" in a very, VERY bad way
It is impossible, in my opinion, to make too much of or overstate the fact that Dylan made this album when he was 20 years old*. I don't simply mean this from the standpoint of "what were YOU doing when you were 20?" (although it would probably embarrass many of us to answer that question), but also from the fact that the odds against any sort of success for Dylan, in any capacity, were stacked against him from the beginning. Think about it - a kid from Minnesota bullshits his way into the inner circle of the burgeoning folk music movement, gets a number of gigs at clubs around the Village in New York (the epicenter of a lot of things, let alone the folk scene), meets a Columbia bigwig at a private party, and somehow lands a contract with one of America's biggest record labels, all within the span of about a year...and still, that was absolutely no guarantee of success in the public market.
*and he looks all 20 years of it on the cover, even though he's dressed up like a Greenwich Village sherpa - talk about your baby faces
Of course, he had talent from the start, and that talent is evident in his performing style and the way (even then) he instantly synthesized all sorts of stuff he was listening to into a style that could maybe, possibly, kinda-sorta be called his own. One of Dylan's great strengths throughout his career was the way he could pull together all sorts of disparate threads of musicality (blues, Eastern influences, folk, etc.) and create music that not only reflected those threads, but bore his own stamp of originality. There are precious few musicians/bands that can do that. On top of that, Dylan just absorbed records in his youth, and you can pick up all sorts of tricks along the way through simple osmosis. I think it's fair to say that Dylan, although he might not have become Dylan, probably would've had a nice little niche career as a folk singer and an exemplary arranger of traditional songs if he'd chosen to stay on that course. That he didn't do that, of course, is why I have the chance to write this blog, and for that I'm eternally grateful.
I suppose I've been ignoring the actual reason behind this post, but I wanted to get all the extracurriculars out of the way before actually delving into this baby. "You're No Good", as it's listed on Dylan's website (I think other places list it as "She's No Good"), clocks in at a super short 1:40, and pretty much serves as introduction to what we're gonna get here. A cover of a song by one-man band Jesse Fuller (who wrote the really great "San Francisco Bay Blues"), the lyrics are standard blues "mean woman" territory, and Dylan doesn't try to do too much with the song.
One thing that really threw me off is how different Bob sounds here. I mean, honestly, for a man whose voice changed more times than seemingly possible in his career, it's startling to hear him, this young, actually trying to sound old. He's forcing his voice to do things it probably shouldn't, adopting a husky growl that actually made me think of Springsteen at times (although Dylan's timbre isn't nearly as deep as Bruce's, and that's probably for the best). Everybody talks about Woody Guthrie's influence on early Dylan, but Woody never sounded as growly and raspy as Dylan does on this song.
Maybe part of it has to do with the tempo - Bob more or less spits this song out and hammers away on the guitar, accounting for the brevity of the song's running time. His harmonica solo is blasted out in sharp notes, a far cry from the workouts we'll get later in his career. I don't know for sure if that's how Fuller performed it, but it seems likely that Bob saw that the song (which is kind of lightweight, to be honest) would work better performed machine-gun style, and so he did. That makes the song a pleasant listen, at least, and gets things settled for what comes next.
One other note - why was this song recorded in stereo? Was there something really exceptional to be had in separating one guitar and one voice? Or is this just another example of the "fake stereo" that can make listening to Beatles records occasionally jarring? Either way, it just seems odd, that's all.