Thursday, July 23, 2009

East Coast vs. West Coast: Neil Young vs. Bob Dylan

This is a new series here at You Set the Scene where we attempt to settle the age old East Coast vs. West Coast feud. In reality, we’re exploring the New York City metro area vs. the Los Angeles metro area.

In the first post we explored the quintessential band from each area: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND vs. THE BEACH BOYS. Our verdict was The Beach Boys (HERE).

This time around we look at - The (Transplanted) Singer/Songwriter.


- Does Bob Dylan belong to New York City?
Robert Zimmerman was born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota and got interested in folk music while living in Minneapolis. In 1961 he was drawn to New York City by Woody Guthrie and the Greenwich Village scene. He was already calling himself Bob Dylan by then, but New York City was where he made a name for himself. With the exception of the Nashville records, his early records were recorded at Columbia Studios in NYC. Interestingly, in the late 1970s and early 1980s he recorded most of his records in Los Angeles. It's quite possible that he’s spent more time living in LA than NYC. Today he’s the definition of a rolling stone, spending time in upstate New York, Malibu and touring. But New York City gets him because of those early, formative years. But don't tell Minnesota.

- Does Neil Young belong to Los Angeles?
Neil Young was born in Toronto in 1945. He started playing in bands in high school and dropped out to play the folk clubs. After his short lived band the Mynah Birds fell apart (stupid Rick James) Neil moved to LA in 1966 (still only 20 years old). His first band there was Buffalo Springfield, who recorded three albums in a little over two years. After they broke up, Neil stayed in LA and finally found his voice as a writer and performer. He recorded his first few solo albums there. Throughout the 1970s Young continued to split his time and record between Northern and Southern California. These days we tend associate Neil with Northern California, but he did spend his formative years in LA. So for the purposes of this argument, LA gets Neil. But don't tell Canada.

Popularity: While Bob Dylan’s never had a #1 pop song as a performer (“Like a Rolling Stone” and “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” both reached #2), he has sold a shitload of records. Sixteen releases have gone at least platinum and five of his records have reached #1 on the Billboard charts. He’s also won about ten Grammys and a lifetime achievement award, an Oscar and is a member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (and at their essence, those are all popularity contests).

As a solo performer, seven of Neil Young's records have gone at least platinum. Only Harvest reached number one on the Billboard charts. Neil's had one song, "Heart of Gold," reach number one on the Billboard singles chart. Funnily enough, in an 1985 interview Dylan said this about the song: "It seemed to me somebody else had taken my thing and had run away with it, you know, and I never got over it. Maybe tomorrow."

Edge: Bob Dylan

But this competition isn’t about mainstream popularity or chart success, so let’s dig a little deeper….

Songwriting: These are two of the most prolific, respected songwriters of all time. By my count, Neil's got ten albums and 85 songs that are pretty fantastic. No slouch either, Dylan's got at least a dozen critically acclaimed records and probably 60 songs that (I think) are pretty fantastic. Dylan also got all those one liners that are ingrained in our culture. Edge: Too close to call

Voice/Musicianship: Both artists have unmistakably unique voices that are a bit of an acquired taste. Dylan can be a chameleon with his. Put some of his country records on the turntable and the average music fan probably wouldn't recognize it as Dylan. Neil's able to use his limited range in a slightly prettier way. While Neil never claims to be a good guitar player, most fans would strongly disagree. Dylan doesn't quite have the same cachet. Edge: Neil Young

Cool Factor: Dylan's cool is more rooted in a beatnik-y, mid to late 1960s thing while Neil's is more rooted in that early to mid-1970s Topanga Canyon vibe. Neither artist has shied away from politics - Dylan with the civil rights movement and Neil Young's "Ohio" was a huge anti-war anthem. They both had periods of uncool too - Dylan's born-again phase and Neil's Republican phase. Neil Young wrote "This Note's For You" and Dylan appeared with in a Pepsi ad (I'll excuse him for Victoria's Secret, but Escalade?). In the end, it's really hard to find anybody who has been as cool for as long as Neil Young. Edge: Neil Young

Influence/Legacy: Both artists will leave behind incredible legacies. They've influenced both directly and indirectly anybody who has picked up a guitar (including each other). Not to discount Neil, but Dylan started earlier and was able to leave a more distinct legacy. There's really no modern substitute for Dylan. Edge: Bob Dylan

Verdict: How do you choose? Dylan's sold more albums, he's an American icon and his influence is undeniable. But as great as his recent songs are, he feels like he belongs to another generation. He's built so many walls around himself and manipulated his image so much, it's hard to feel like you know him. Neil Young's also had an incredible amount of success. He's completely uncompromising, which can be frustrating for his fans, but commands respect. There's so much passion and such a directness in his songwriting that in spite of his prickly nature, fans feel connected with him. Rolling Stone Magazine disagrees with me, but......Neil Young

Reminder: Tune in to Little Radio tomorrow from Noon to 2:00 for the Sinking Radio show. I have requested a recently released (on the Archives set) live version of one of the songs from Neil's first solo record. Often the live versions of the songs from that record beat the studio versions.


Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with giving the edge to Young for song writing. I also think Neil is great but not in Dylan's class. If they were to poll fellow musicians on this topic Dylan would win by a landslide.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Anonymous
They are both great artists, but Dylan, you know, I mean.. it's Dylan eh.. songwriting? Certainly Dylan. But hey, Neil Young's magnificent too.

duke said...

i can't argue with you guys (and you're probably in the majority). dylan has some of the most memorable lyrics in the history of songwriting while neil's lyrics are more simplistic and direct. i'd choose dylan as the better lyricist and give neil a slight edge for the music. i said it was too close to call - but i know where you're coming from.

Anonymous said...

I think even Neil Young agrees that Bob Dylan made a greater impact on music and popular culture.

ryan said...

Look I think Neil's great , but on any basis you like there's no-one in the same ballpark as say he jas 60 great songs to neil's 85 ???...most critics would credit Bob's great songs in the 100's , many many albums with barely a dud song

Anonymous said...

Neil Young in a great songwriter, but Bob Dylan is unique.

Angela said...

Concerning influence and legacy, some could have given the edge to Neil Young but it was 15 years ago. At the time, Young was celebrated as the Godfather of Grunge, Kurt Cobain's death letter was still in the memories and he had recorded a few classic albums (Ragged Glory, Weld, Harvest Moon). Meanwhile, Dylan had just recorded one fine album (Oh Mercy) in the middle of a lean cows era. To many, he was just a has been who banked on his popularity.

After the string of albums that Dylan has released since 1997, he's gained back the edge. He's being viewed by many artists as an inspiration in the way he dealt with age and found new poignancy in the process. Meanwhile, Young has released too many clunkers (Broken Arrow, Are You Passionate?, Red Rocks Live Vol. 1, anyone?) to be seen as currently relevant by younger generations. It's cool to say you love Neil Young, it's not cool to be seen listening to some late Neil Young.

Matthew Lintzenich said...

I think it's TOTALLY cool to be caught listening to some 'late' Neil Young, and am quite proud to admit it.

Greendale, Silver & Gold, Prairie Wind and Chrome Dreams II balance out any 'clunkers' he's had of late. FITR is an acquired taste, but has some great tracks.

Also, Living With War had an impact culturally in the U.S., and brought Neil back into very relevant focus at the time.

Neil's last 9 years of output very easily holds up to Bob Dylan's last 12 or 13 years of active output. Both have put out some extremely good, thoughtful, expressive stuff.

And we haven't even heard Toast yet.

Personally I don't believe there's a possibility of objectivity in this debate, and 'too close to call' is probably the most honest way to look at it...

But I choose Neil Young for his pure, unrelenting authenticity.

ryan said...

Dylan's not authentic ??....he'd put out 6 classic albums of grondbreaking authenticity before Neil had ever been heard of ..whstever's happened sice I don't think Neil or anyone else has ever matched obviously are entitled to there opinions ,but as many see it there's before Dylan and there's after Dylan ...Neil , for the many great albums that I agree he has put out I put in the camp of one of the followers...also I think Bob's bad stuff has weathered the years far better than Neil's bad stuff ,you only nreed to check out the previously unreleased material to see how deep his well is

Anonymous said...

This kind of tired stuff (Prince vs. Michael Jackson? Oh, who will ever decide?!) gives "debate" a bad name.

Neil is great. Bob is sui generis. There's no need to argue.

Duke said...

Prince! Oh - you're trying to condemn this kind of thing...

duke said...

and isn't this what music fanatics (and sports fanatics, and politicos, and movie fanatics) do? debate completely subjective topics that most people care nothing about? we also make mix tapes to (try to) impress our friends, start blogs, form record labels, etc. all in the spirit of fun

Matthew Lintzenich said...

I knew the very next reply would be an incredulous retort to my authenticity statement. Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that Bob Dylan is NOT authentic.

Only that Neil pursues authenticity to its zenith, moreso than Bob, and quite deliberately, and that's why I like him.

Dylan has an incredibly authentic voice, and is an incredible songwriter, and his lyrics are often authentic and wonderful. So no knock on Dylan. But he was quite a fashionable hipster, and did "dress to impress", so to speak. Neil, on the other hand, wasn't so trendy, and didn't want to be.

Also, I'd argue that Neil's "bad" albums have weathered quite fine.

Trans is still around, and the last I heard a lot of people like that album now, having had 25 years to digest it and allow it to age.

They release so much music, and are so prolific, and refuse to be bogged down trying to make everything perfect. So they both release "questionable" albums over time, albums that always make more sense many years later after we've given them time to grow on us.

ryan said...

I respect everything you've said and whilst I don't agree totally I need to correct you on one thing....I was around during Bob's " fashionible hipster " phase ...the impact of the music was like an avalanche where all other musos totally rethought where they were coming from...Bob was not cool or hip , he was seen as a strange radical's only with the advent of docos and looking back that the current generations not having been there instantly recognise the coolness and the apparent really wasn't like that at the time

Anonymous said...

Re: authenticity.

Both Young and Dylan have made careers of interrogating the very notion of "authenticity." (Who is more authentic: Hobo Bob of the first album, or Vegas Bob of _Street Legal_, or Jesus Bob, or Invalid Bob, or Whiteface Bob, etc.) (Cf. Folk Neil, Metal Neil, Country Neil, WTF Neil, etc.)

Again Dylan is sui generis and thus does not admit comparison, no matter how amusingly provocative.


Duke said...

one important aspect of these exercises is that it forces you to go back and look at the entire discography. both of these guys have such diverse and varied careers. so many musical artists entire careers can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs, but you can spend a decade exploring the music, myths and legend of these two...

mrspicotto said...

dylan is more a poet than musician, for poetry = dylan, for lyrics and music = young

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