Exploiting a Tragedy

It might have been a wonderful story. Well, not a “wonderful” story. It’s a horrible story, actually. But part of the story would have been very appealing to a certain constituency: when one of the teenage killers at Columbine High School held a gun to the head of Cassie Bernall and asked her if she believed in God, she courageously said “yes”. Then he blew her away.

Oh wait. What do you mean “might have been a wonderful story”? Didn’t it happen?

The Christian community in the U.S. has seized upon this incident. It has a lot of appealing elements for them. First of all, Cassie was a young, attractive teenage girl. She had gone through a rebellious stage, including, allegedly, some dabbling in witchcraft, but her parents had straightened her out by sending her to a strict “program” at West Bowles Community Church. She wore a “What would Jesus do” bracelet. She carried a bible to school every day and was reading it at the moment the carnage began. She confessed her faith in words loud enough to be heard by her cowering classmates, though she knew it might mean her life.

So the story seems to provide a little of everything. Cassie was courageous because she confessed her sin. When she had rebelled, her parents no-nonsense, “tough love” measures worked. She carried a bible to school, where, of course, thanks to the godless liberals and feminists, prayer and bible study is no longer permitted. She was murdered by two young boys who were heavily immersed in video games, violent Hollywood movies, and rock’n’roll. Most importantly, she was murdered because she was a Christian. Because America turned it’s back on God when it banned prayer in school.

The latest fad among the ultra-right in the U.S. is to assert that they are now a persecuted minority. In a perverse way, this is the rationale they now use to assert their traditional privileged status in society. They claim that they are the only religion not allowed to have prayers in school (ignoring, with twisted logic, the fact that no other religion ever had a large enough constituency to even attempt to assert such a right in the first place, and ignoring the fact no other religion is or ever was allowed to lead classes or assemblies in prayer at any time).

It’s a story that plays into the social and political attitudes and platitudes of the Christian right.

The trouble is, the story is not exactly true. Well, it’s not true at all, essentially.
The report originated with one of the boys who was in the library, and who survived the assault. He was the brother of Rachel Scott who was killed outside of the school. He told the police that he heard the conversation and recognized Cassie’s voice.

The police later tried to verify the story. They took Mr. Scott through the library, as part of the process of meticulously reconstructing the sequence of events at Columbine. When Mr. Scott showed them where Cassie had been during the exchange, the police knew that the voice did not come from Cassie Bernall. Cassie’s body had been found in a different location. In fact, Cassie had been hiding under a table with Emily Wyant, quite some distance away from all of the other students. This is information that is not difficult to confirm.

This much is true. The gunman—most likely Dylan Klebold—asked a girl if she believed in God. The girl was not Cassie Bernall but Valeen Schnurr. Valeen did indeed answer yes, courageously, yes. But the gunman did not shoot her. In fact, he allowed Valeen, who was seriously wounded, to crawl away, without further harm.

What does it mean?

What does it mean?

The Christian community has adopted Cassie Bernall as a symbol of all that is forthright and courageous and virtuous in America, just as they have come to see Klebold and Harris as icons of deviance, immorality, and godlessness. Every hero needs a villain. Even Valeen Schnurr says she doesn’t mind that this spurious story circulates because it might bring someone to Jesus. Meanwhile, she has come under some abuse herself by “Christians” who are upset at her for disabusing them of their congenial myth.

So, she goes along with the silent consensus here among people who should know better: a little lie can be excused if it furthers the greater good.

I have trouble with this. So some minister is going to tell the story of Cassie Bernall at an evangelical service somewhere and fifteen young people, as a result of the story, will come to the front to pledge their lives to Jesus. No harm done? Not if they find out some day that Christian leaders knowingly perpetuated a lie? No harm done when reputable scholars and writers and journalists are aware of the deceit and draw negative conclusions about the integrity and honesty of the Christian community as a result? No harm done when a Christian congressman like Asa Hutchinson stands up in Congress and argues for a bill and some wavering delegate sits and listens and thinks, “Well, this is the guy who still goes around flogging the story of Cassie Bernall even though he should know better….”

If Christianity is true, would it’s adherents willfully lie about a thing like this?  If Christianity means something to its adherents– if it means anything– why does this happen, often?


Just Say No

Universities in Canada got 60% of their funding from the government in the 1960’s. Now they get 40%. The rest comes from tuition and corporate donations.

The Corporate sponsorship is disturbing.

Apparently, according to the Canadian Association of University Professors, many of these agreements are secret, especially in regard to intellectual property rights. It was this kind of agreement that led to the University of Toronto trying to silence researcher Nancy Oliveri when her research showed that there might be harmful side effects of a drug produced by Apotex.

In a related story, a professor at McMaster University imposed a new policy on all researchers at that facility: no meetings with representatives of drug companies. Why? Because he felt that medical research was becoming compromised by the intermingling of the interests of the drug companies with those of the universities and the medical profession itself.

Perhaps the most laughable slogan of the entire 1980’s was pet phrase of Nancy Reagan’s: “Just say no to drugs”. Just say no to drugs? Ritalin! Valium! Prozac! Viagra! Lithium! Etc. Etc. Etc. We are the most drug-addled society on earth! Say “no”? And bring the stock market crashing down?!

Our society loves drugs. Institutions love them because violent patients can be sedated into harmless mindless sacks of inert flesh. Doctors love them because they provide convenient and speedy personality modifications to persistently annoying patients, and spare them the aggravating ordeal of actually trying to find a real remedy. Drug companies love them—naturally—because they provide incredible profits, since they can charge far in excess of the actual cost of the chemicals in the prescription, to cover—ha ha—research and development. Research scientists love them because drug companies provide them with millions of dollars to conduct research to arrive at just that conclusion (and if they don’t reach that conclusion—see above—the money is withdrawn).

So what’s with this “just say no” campaign? Well, you see, those poor inner city blacks don’t play by the rules. First of all, their drugs don’t include a healthy royalty to some large pharmaceutical firm (just imagine their apoplexy had Nancy Reagan added—”and let’s all try to do with a little less Prozac and Valium ourselves, shall we?”). Secondly, they haven’t developed this wonderful rationale of how stressed out they all are and how they’ve all seen so many psychiatrists and been to all the doctors and just can’t get over this severe depression that’s been limiting their ability to work, you know… The truth is this: in the U.S., blacks constitute 14% of the drug-using population, but they constitute 58% of those convicted for drug use. Look at those numbers carefully. Think of all the movies and tv shows you see about drugs and crime. Think about the reality. The war on drugs is the war on black America. And this war cost $18 billion a year (Harpers Magazine, November 1999). And it is the most one-sided debacle in U.S. history. It has been lost over and over again but America continues to fight it because it’s a winner as an election issue.

It is at moments like this I feel somewhat pessimistic about the human race.

There is a pretty good argument to be made that marijuana, especially, is illegal today because it provides the same sort of hit that Prozac and Valium provide, but at much, much less cost. In fact, you could grow it yourself in your backyard, if the police would let you. A similar argument could be made for cocaine. So, even though I feel pessimistic, I must admit that there are signs of hope. In seven states, voters have indicated, by substantial margins, that they approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Representative Bob Barr, in fact– he of impeachment fame– used some nefarious and obscure loopholes to prevent the results of the vote in the District of Columbia from becoming known. When it was finally released, 70% of the voters supported medical use of marijuana. But Mr. Democracy, Bob Barr, has blocked the implementation of the law on a technicality.

It might strike you as surprising that it is only recently in human history that drugs like Cocaine and marijuana have been made illegal. The prohibition of these and other “recreational” drugs coincides perfectly with the rise of the large pharmaceutical companies (who also tried to ban or hobble sales of herbal remedies).

Ah, you say—but aren’t those evil, illegal drugs addictive? Precisely. Why some of them are almost as addictive as, say, lithium. In fact, many of the heavy duty, most frequently-prescribed pharmaceuticals are at least equally addictive.

So what am I saying?

First of all, I am not saying that drug use is good. Get that clear. I don’t drink more than two or three beers a YEAR myself. I dislike anything that messes with your mind. And I certainly don’t use any prescription drugs and whenever I hear of someone who is depressed or disturbed, I hope they find some way to deal with problems that does not involve pharmaceuticals.

However, just as Prohibition of alcohol failed, the war on drugs has failed. And just as most people came to realize that Prohibition did more damage than good, people should come to realize that the war on drugs does more harm than good. The war on alcohol produced powerful criminal organizations that branched out into prostitution, gambling, and murder. Does that sound familiar?

As shocking as the idea sounds, the fact is that some countries have already tried legalizing drugs. In Holland, marijuana and hashish are freely available. And surprise, surprise, more adolescents try marijuana in the U.S. than they do in Holland!

That drugs like cocaine and marijuana should be legal? Well, think about it. Alcohol, in terms of sheer quantity, does far more damage to our society than marijuana. Yet it’s perfectly legal. In fact, it is downright easy for any teenager to get a six pack or a bottle of wine.

We did try banning alcohol once too. Of course, we all know how disastrous that was, and how it led to the development of powerful criminal organizations in North America that branched out into other forms of crime and plagued our society for years afterwards. Does that sound familiar?

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court, featuring embarrassingly second-rate minds like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, appointed during the twelve years of Republican Administrations between Carter and Clinton, have been steadily eroding constitutional rights protecting citizens from “unreasonable search and seizure”. Police in helicopters can now peer inside your windows, and officers can search your car just because they feel like it. What does this mean? In California, according to Harper’s, an elderly grandfather was shot twice and killed by police who burst into his house in a hail of gunfire searching for a suspect who had lived next door fifteen years earlier. In New York, a mentally retarded, menstruating young girl was dragged naked from the shower and hand-cuffed while police searched the house. Again, no drugs were found.

Nor were any apologies offered. Why should we apologize? We’re the police! We’re in a war on drugs! You don’t apologize to civilian casualties during a war!

And those two cases are just the tip of the ice berg. Under the Supreme Court’s relaxed rules on search and seizure, it has become very profitable for police to pull suspects over the side of the road, seize their cars and property, and leave it to the hapless citizen to “prove” that the property was not used for the purpose of drug-dealing. Not every citizen is smart enough to respond within the 10 days allowed, or rich enough to afford a lawyer, or patient enough to challenge the constipated U.S. criminal court systems. It’s easier, quicker, and safer to please guilty to a reduced charge and turn snitch, thereby providing the police with fresh leads on new property to seize.

It’s utterly incredible, contemptible, and outrageous. Why isn’t this on the front pages of the newspapers, the lead story on television?

Because there’s no sex.

Hollywood stars can afford lawyers.

Everyone has been convinced by successive administrations that drugs is the number one problem in our society and nobody– not Al Gore, not George Bush Jr., not Bill Bradley, not even John McCain– has the guts to stand up to his juggernaut of imbecilic brutality.


Abraham Lincoln and the Evangelicals

According to biographer Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln might have believed in a divine maker, but he certainly did not believe in Jesus Christ–in a personal savior. He did not belong to a church. He believed that people were generally in charge of their own destiny and had the capacity to build a better society together.

In short, Abraham Lincoln was one of those evil, secular humanists that people in the Christian right in the U.S. constantly badger us about.


Thomas Jefferson? Benjamin Franklin? Thomas Paine? How convenient that they are dead and unable to speak for themselves. These “heroes” of the American Revolution have their names invoked time and time again by Republicans, homophobes, militant evangelicals, and tv preachers, as paragons of Christian virtue and “traditional” values.

Do you believe me? Or do you want to believe Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson?

You know, it’s not very difficult to find the truth in this matter. There really isn’t a controversy, like there is, say, over the efficacy of gun control or feminism or the Equal Rights Amendment. You can read the original works by these guys in any library. They were NOT—I repeat, NOT—Christians. They did not base the constitution on scripture. They did not base the Bill of Rights on scripture. They based their work on the ideas of people like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

So when someone tells you that America needs to return to the moral virtues of the past, and to the examples of stalwart men like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine – I say, “Amen, brother!”

Well, no, I don’t, exactly. You see Jefferson owned slaves and he sired children by one of them. Benjamin Franklin had quite a reputation in Paris, when he was American ambassador. And George Washington certainly didn’t think Martha should be entitled to equal pay for work of equal value.

So there you go. You see the danger of trying to read the past into the present or, even worse, the future.

The truth is, we are here and now and we have to try to find the best answer to our various social and economic and moral problems all by ourselves. We can learn from the past, but you can’t go back, and America can’t go back.

The Founding Fathers, fearful of invasion by Britain, believed that every man should keep a gun handy. Today, 40,000 people a year a murdered at least partly because it is easier to get a gun in the U.S. than it is to get a firecracker.

Time to move on, I say.

Banning MP3

It’s been quite a while since the Recording Industry Association of America tried to have MP3 players banned but I am still so steamed about this issue that I have to give it another rant.

Think about this. The Diamond company created a little portable device called the Rio that allows you to listen to music that has been recorded and compressed into MP3 files. That’s all it does.

Anyone with the right software and hardware can create an MP3 file on a computer. You can record yourself, or you could take the Windows sound effects, or you could take a CD or tape you already own and record it onto the computer and convert it to MP3 format.

What’s the big deal? How could anyone have thought this should be illegal?

Well, the record industry says that you could take a commercial, copyrighted recording and convert it to MP3 and play it on your portable MP3 player. Again, what’s the big deal? You paid for the CD. You are perfectly entitled to convert it into different formats so you can listen to it on different devices.

Ah—but the music industry thinks that we will all shortly start copying our Celine Dion and Back Street Boys albums onto our computers and giving copies away to our friends! Then your friends won’t want to buy the albums (especially after hearing the Back Street Boys).

Well, well. So it appears that you could do something illegal with an MP3. Well well. The truth is, you could also take your Rio and bang someone on the head and kill them, but you don’t see the government trying to ban them for that reason.

Now you have to remember here that the government of the U.S. allows almost anyone to buy a handgun at any time, on the assumption that just because a person buys a powerful, easily-concealed weapon that can blow a hole the size of an orange through somebody’s head does not necessarily mean that this person is likely to commit a crime with it.

This government also allows people to buy alcohol, gasoline, rope, fertilizer, and Barry Manilow records. All without the slightest restriction.

What we have here is a classic case of the rich and powerful throwing their weight around and abusing the legislative and judicial processes in order to exploit the hapless consumer. They have already succeeded in preventing DAT tape drives from getting a foothold in America. And the Disney corporation has succeeded in extending the copyright of the Mickey Mouse character. How? Easy. You simply pour money into the re-election campaigns of influential senators and congressman.

It is shameful and disgusting. At the next election, ask your congressman how he feels about this issue. If he supports the RIAA initiative, jam your Diamond Rio up his nose.

The MP3

How complex are the moral and ethical issues surrounding copyright nowadays, with all the advances in computer technology? Consider MP3.

MP3 (Media Player 3) is a new format for digital music recording. The MP3 system allows you to make very good digital copies from any CD or “wav” file and copy the file onto your computer, a personal MP3 “player” (similar to a walkman), or… the Internet. A typical three minute pop song, which would take up to 20 megabytes of disk space as a “wav” file, can be condensed into a 3 megabyte MP3 file. There are already thousands of sites on the Internet offering MP3 files for downloading, most of them illegal copies of copyrighted material. There are also a growing number of sites offering original MP3 files, with the consent of the artist.

Many of the users of MP3 offer a thin rationalization for their activities: they would have more respect for copyright if CDs were priced more fairly. They are aware of the fact that CDs are cheaper to produce than vinyl records, yet they cost twice as much. Very little of the difference in cost, if any, actually goes to the artist.

The music industry is absolutely frantic about MP3 and has tried their best to stamp it out. Having failed to convince the courts that it should be banned, they are now attempting to hi-jack it by presenting their own variation of the technology, but with built-in protocols to prevent successive or second generation copies from being made. If history is an indicator, their efforts are not likely to succeed. IBM, Microsoft, Compuserve, and AOL have all fought these battles before and lost.

One is tempted to sympathize with the music industry. After all, don’t they have a right to protect their music? What about the poor musicians, struggling to make a living in his noble profession? Music industry representatives are careful to present themselves as defenders of the poor artists and composers who will be denied their just royalties because of this new form of piracy. Aren’t these workers entitled to a just wage?

To be absolutely blunt about it, I don’t believe that the music industry cares very much about their “poor” artists and composers at all. The truth is that music industry exploits artists and consumers alike. What the music industry is really frightened of is the possibility that artists and composers will no longer need them at all.

Consider the rap group Public Enemy (you’ve probably heard their biggest hit, “Fight the Power”, somewhere). Public Enemy recently attempted to post their own songs in MP3 format on their website. However, lawyers for their record company, DefJam, obtained injunctions and shut them down immediately. So much for the rights of the “poor” composer.

Why did Public Enemy defy their own record company?

The dispute centres on the bookkeeping procedures commonly used by large record companies in their management of artists and repertoire. When an artist is signed, he (or they) is given a large advance, and access to a recording studio. The artist is thrilled. He probably doesn’t understand much of the language in the contracts he signs. He probably doesn’t even have a lawyer, or an agent. He thinks that if he has a hit record, he is going to be rich.

The record company, on behalf of the artist, hires public relations consultants, photographers, legal representatives, arrangers, session musicians, and so on. All of these people may in fact work for the record company, but their services are billed separately to the artist, as if they were independent consultants. Many of these charges can quickly become grossly inflated. A manicurist earning $8.95 an hour suddenly becomes an “image consultant” for a shadow company at rates of $125.00 an hour. The manicurist doesn’t see that money, of course. On paper, it looks like the record company has incurred horrendous expenses, and may even be taking a loss on the artist. In reality, if the artist is successful, everybody except the artist—and the real manicurist—will make piles of money.

This system is so pervasive that, according to Billboard Magazine, the average artist who sells 500,000 CDs will realize a net profit of about $20,000, after all the “expenses” have been deducted from his royalties!

Back to Public Enemy, this rap group woke up one day and found out that, after selling $72 million in merchandise, they were completely broke. Like any reasonable person, they wondered how that was possible. Well, their record company, Defjam, explained that, according to their accounting methods, it cost them well over $71 million to sell that $72 million worth of merchandise.

It is not surprising, then, to discover that many successful musicians follow a strategy first employed by Tom Petty and declare bankruptcy after a few short years of “success”. The reason they do so is because it is the only legal way they can extricate themselves from the preposterous contracts they naively signed. And it will be no surprise to learn that the music industry is lobbying hard for Congress to pass a new law making it even more difficult for musicians to escape their contracts by declaring bankruptcy. [update: they succeeded, the law was passed]

So, what the music industry really fears is that more and more artists will do what Ani DiFranco did and bypass the music industry entirely. DiFranco records, prints, and markets all of her own CDs, and is doing quite well, artistically and financially, thank you. Once she achieved notable success on her own, including a major story in Time Magazine, the record companies came calling, but she was not foolish enough to succumb to their offers of glittering promotional pieces in Vanity Fair and guest slots on David Letterman.

With MP3, and the explosion of inexpensive recording equipment, it has become quite practical for a new artist to create his own music in the comfort of his own home, put samples out on the Internet, and sell CDs for less than half what the music chains charge, and still make a reasonable profit. You can understand why the music industry is deeply concerned about this new technology, and why the film industry has also taken notice. Without a chokehold on the distribution of music, the major labels would quickly be forced to compete with more and more independent artists and labels.

Where does this leave the ethical listener? Certainly, the basic principle of copyright should be respected. But I believe we should oppose the attempts by the music industry to outlaw or restrict new technologies that threaten their control of music recording and distribution. We should also support balancing legislation that begins to reassert the rights of the consumer, to make copies of music for personal use, to freely copy and distribute non-copyrighted material, and to make “fair use” of copyrighted material in the classroom, library, and for research and study. Above all, artists need far greater protection from the sometimes devious and dishonest practices of the recording industry.

The Vinyl Record

Do you have any vinyl records? Threw them all out after you’d amassed a serious collection of CD’s, did you? Vinyl records are analog. CDs are digital. Bad, bad vinyl. Throw it away.

Too bad. Big, big mistake. Let me tell you why.

Everybody knows about MP3 by now. Just in case, I’ll refresh your memory about the salient details.

Since computers started becoming bigger, faster, and more powerful, the average user has had the capability of recording music or any other sound into a computer file that could be played back through an amplifier. The format most computers used for this was called “wav”. It wasn’t a very efficient format. To record a three-minute song at good fidelity required about 25 – 40 megabytes of space. Even with today’s 10 GIG hard drives, that’s a big file. Too big to circulate on the internet, for example.

MP3 is nothing more than a file compression format. It takes that humungous 25 MB wav file and converts it into a sleek little 3 MB MP3 file. Best of all, when you copy an MP3 file, you don’t lose one megahertz of audio quality. Think of it: the 50th copy is just as good as the 1st.

This, of course, has tremendous implications. It could mean the death of the popular music industry. And some of the smarter people at Sony and Warner Brothers know that. And they are having fits. If music can be downloaded off the internet and copied endlessly, who will buy CDs?

Well, they aren’t taking this lying down of course. Various music companies have combined– isn’t that illegal (yes it is)– to work out a new standard for digital media that will allow them to prevent people from making copies of their music. They want to this by putting a secret code in the computerized music file. This code will tell a recording device not to make copies of the music.

What nobody seems to realize is that this, at long last, will mark the definitive end of the vinyl record. Vinyl records cannot be encoded to prevent copying. Why would they issue music on CD’s designed to prevent copies, and then issue vinyl LPs which would allow anyone with a decent turntable to copy the music onto a computer and generate the numerous illicit copies they so dread?

Of course, why issue music on vinyl at all? The most amazing thing about the success of the CD format is that it was accomplished by persuading people to buy a new copy of music they already own. And that is why the “industry” is very, very excited about DVD or whatever else is going to succeed the CD as the standard format of musical recordings. Once again, everyone who dearly loves music will have to go out and buy new copies of their favorite CDs. And you can take your old, obsolete CD’s and stack them right next to your obsolete vinyl LPs.

Sony just announced the release of their own proprietary digital format. They say that you will be able to download Sony’s copyrighted music off the internet. After you pay, of course. Sony thinks you should just rush out and buy the new portable player for Sony’s new copyrighted format, which cost over $400, because, after all, don’t you want to be able to play Celine Dionne on your computer?

Think about this friends: you have a choice. MP3 allows you to make as many copies of a piece of music as you want. You can download music in MP3 format from all over the world, for free. So you probably want to rush right out and buy the new Sony player instead, for $400, so we can all put an end to this free music and start paying again!

If Sony was really smart—and I don’t think they are, on this issue—they would be giving their player away. I’m not kidding. Sony—if you’re listening—I want $1 million for this copyrighted idea (Copyright 1999, all rights reserved, Bill Van Dyk). Here it is again: give your portable player away, for free, and give away as many as possible as quickly as possible. Give it away at concerts, with free cuts by the artist. Give it away at record shops, with free samples by your leading stars. Give it away at trade shows and press conferences. Give it away in breakfast cereals.

Think, Sony. If you give your player away, people will want music to play on it. Where will they get that music? They will get it from your web site. How much will they pay? Well, don’t be stupid and try to charge them $1 a track. That would mean that a CD-length work would cost $20. That’s what we currently pay for a physical product that is pressed, labeled, packaged, and distributed. You just have to upload these files to your web site and set up people’s accounts. How about 25 cents each? You’ll win the digital music war!

My guess is that Sony is not as stupid as you might think and that the $400 is a ploy. My guess is that Sony wants you to think that the player is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 so that when they start giving it away for about $99 near Christmas time, you’ll think you’re getting something really valuable, even though each device will only cost Sony about $5 to manufacture (no moving parts, no belts, no drives, just cheap silicone chips, an LCD, and a “play” button). My guess is that Sony is going to try to charge people $2.50 a cut for music for their machine. My guess is that their market research will show that people are pretty stupid and will pay two and a half times as much for a recording that cost Sony 1/5th as much, to produce and distribute, as a CD copy. People will pay this because they will want to be “cutting edge” and show off to their friends.

Will this fool a lot of people?


Bob Dylan’s Voice

Bob Dylan performed a concert in Montreal on July 8th, 1988. He was so bad the audience booed him off the stage. Humiliated and disgraced, he retired from all public performances, though he continued to write brilliant, searing songs like “The Man in the Long Black Coat” for other artists who knew how to sing, like Joan Osborne.

Yeah. Right. Never happened.

It almost happened, once. In 1965, in New York, an audience expecting an acoustic, folkie Dylan, rebelled when he brought the Hawks, an eclectic electric band, on stage with him, and drilled into “Like a Rolling Stone”. He survived the heckling and came back for an encore, with his acoustic guitar, and played “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. On a subsequent tour of England, he encountered more booing and heckling. Still, the majority of the audiences sat back and listened and applauded at the end of each number. More importantly, they paid for their tickets. Dylan sold out every venue.

There is something bizarre about the 1988 concert in Montreal. He is not as bad as you sometimes think he is—his version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is fascinating and passionate—but he certainly is not “singing”. He shouts and honks and garbles and inhales and mumbles and wails and barks. Is he really good at shouting and honking and garbling and inhaling and mumbling and wailing and barking? It wouldn’t be hard to find someone who is way better at it than he is.

If Dylan is so bad, why does he continue, in 1999, to sell out every venue? Maybe I’m stupid. Maybe I’m completely wrong about singing. Maybe this shrieking from the bowels of hell really is quite beautiful and interesting.

It is interesting that he is currently touring with Paul Simon, who wrote this cute little tribute in 1966:

I knew a man whose brain’s so small
Couldn’t think of nothing at all
Not the same as you and me
Doesn’t dig poetry
He’s so un-hip that when you say “Dylan”
He thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas,
Whoever he was. Why the man aint got no culture!
But it’s all right ma, everybody must get stoned….
… I lost my harmonica, Albert….

“Albert” is probably a reference to Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman (who also managed Peter, Paul, and Mary). The song, “A Simple Desultory Philippic”, was one of those petty, vindictive little pieces that result when an artist is jealous of the recognition given to a rival. Simon also once commented that he wanted to earn more respect from critics but couldn’t train his voice to scream with the proper intensity. Artful sarcasm from a man accustomed to accompanying Art Garfunkel, one of the truly gorgeous voices of pop music.

Dylan responded a few years later with a hilarious parody of “The Boxer”, doing both Simon and Garfunkel’s voices, equally preposterously. For the record, I should inform you that some critics believe the Dylan version, released on the disastrous double-album Self Portrait, was a “tribute” to his “good friend” Simon. Hmmm. It might well have been both.

It was the Beatles who first noticed that the audience no longer cared about the musical quality of the live performance. It came to them at the height of their career, when they were selling out Shea Stadium and other acoustic hellholes. They discovered that the audience screamed and howled during their entire sets. If you are screaming and howling you aren’t listening. You certainly aren’t trying to notice pitch or rhythm or harmony. You aren’t thinking: “hmmm, seems to me Ringo’s lost a fraction of a second on his timing there…” In other words, they discovered that audiences did not actually come to the concert to hear the music. They were there to see their idols live, on stage, and scream, and get hysterical, and experience the phenomenon of super-stardom up close and personal. Well, as up close and personal as you get when the nearest seat that is available to the general public is about 100 feet away from the stage.

Thank you pop fans. It is because of your mindless devotion that many musicians feel quite comfortable ambling out on stage an hour or two late. You can tell when the concert is about to begin: the rich and privileged take their seats, at last, directly in front of the stage. The seats that you can’t get even if you camp in front of the primary ticket outlet for three days and buy the very first tickets (and pay an exorbitant “handling” fee). You will find that the very first tickets are for seats x and y in row 66. Where did all the other tickets go? The parasites and vampires who run the ticket agencies have them. You think they’re actually going to sell them to you? No way! Not even after charging you preposterous “service” fees to take your money and make you wait. (Kudos to Pearl Jam who has been fighting this system, without much success, for years).

Dylan discovered that he could be rude and snarly and arrogant, and people would still be wild for him and the critics would still worship him. He discovered that he could treat his friends like dirt and still be admired and respected. He discovered that he could be selfish and annoying and hypocritical, and it didn’t matter: his fans would line up on schedule and fork over their $25 or $35 or $45 or $65 to see him live. He discovered that he could paint! No kidding. He did a cover for “The Band”, and for his own “Self-Portrait”. It’s this kind of cubist pastiche that you are supposed to think is the product of genius because it breaks so many rules of conventional art. Actually, his paintings are crummy. He must have realized that eventually– you don’t see many Bob Dylan art shows lately.

And he discovered that he could sing like a howling weasel and it still didn’t matter.

Of course the critics were not fooled….

Well, of course they were.

You see, at one time, Dylan could sing. Quite well, in fact.

But in the 1960’s, people who admired Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett thought that Dylan couldn’t sing. But these people didn’t know a thing about the blues or folk, so they could be readily dismissed as narrow-minded and ignorant. But more sophisticated jazz and folk critics like Robert Shelton, Nat Hentoff, and Greil Marcus lauded Dylan for his originality and brilliance. And they were right, about the Dylan of the 1960’s. Listen to him on his early albums, on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All right”, or “Motopsycho Nightmare” or “Visions of Johanna”. He is not merely good. He is often brilliant, astonishing, breath-taking. He was the most original talent of his time. He could even be tender and melodious—listen to all of Nashville Skyline and “Tangled up in Blue”.

So let’s not get confused here—I’m not one of those people who believe that Dylan never could sing.

In the 1980’s, critics who admired Nat Hentoff and Greil Marcus and didn’t understand the difference between audaciousness and audacity, took up the torch and praised Dylan’s art. The more obscure and obtuse and incoherent, the better—the less likely the common man was going to mistake their admiration for mere pretentiousness.

Now, I’m going to tell you a very shocking and amazing fact: Bob Dylan, today, sounds like garbage. No, it’s not your ears fooling you–he really does sound like garbage. He sings with the melodic artfulness of a blast furnace. He sings with the rhythmic inventiveness of a stuffed fish. He sings with banality and monotony. He’s not even clever with his phrasing anymore.

What happened? Dylan has always lived an insular life and has never had the self-respect to associate with people as smart or smarter than himself. Think of the enormous stress the adulation he received in the early 1960’s put on his personal relationships. He cast aside Joan Baez. He ridiculed Phil Ochs. He dumped loyal friends and associates who dared to imply anything less than full-hearted worship and admiration. He surrounded himself with people of unquestioning loyalty and mindless devotion. So when he finished a concert or a new album or some particularly weird movie performance and asked these people, “how’d I do?” I doubt very much he heard anything but comments like the following:

“Great, Bob.”

“Brilliant again, Bob!”

“Had ‘em eating out of your hand, Bob.”

And Dylan sits there thinking, “Man, I thought I stunk, but I guess I was really great. Must have been great—sold out again, in 40 cities.”

Dylan now plays Vegas. Dylan now belongs in Vegas.