But is he a singer or a crooner?

Dad pondered this question many a time.
Dad could be pondering this question right now.

As I drove home in the snow yesterday, a review of Bob Dylan’s new album on NPR reminded me that every evaluation of everything is contextual, including my opinion of the review.

The road conditions were suddenly terrible, meaning I couldn’t make it to Russ’s house as planned, so maybe I was grumpy, making all kinds of right-turn detours just to get back to my neighborhood. I’ll admit my hackles went up for no apparent reason when the reviewer dismissed Rod Stewart as a “standards hack.” I don’t listen to Rod Stewart, whereas I do have some Dylan albums and just spent a bunch of money to hear him in concert. But I scoffed audibly when the reviewer claimed how because Dylan recorded live in-studio the old-fashioned way, in the same room with his musicians, his renditions were truer to the “smoke-filled rooms” where the songs were first heard. Was there smoke in the studio? And also, Rod Stewart’s voice sounds like he’s smoked a bunch, doesn’t he get any points for that?

Why does Dylan deserve the automatic assumption that there’s deep emotion to his voice just because he switches up the melody line in “What’ll I do”? Maybe if I listen to the song ten times, I’ll be able to tell for sure that it’s a deliberate interp and not just a casual evasion of the notes, but I don’t know that my ear could take it. A deep knowledge of the American Songbook doesn’t mean your singing is any more in tune.

It was like the reviewer needed to give us all this evidence of Dylan’s creds so we wouldn’t laugh when we heard the clips. But I laughed anyway, or would have had I not been gripping the steering wheel like a clamp, praying not to get rear-ended or rear-end someone else. I smiled and gave at least one “Oh my God” to Dylan’s voice wobbling and wavering its way through “Autumn Leaves.”

Dylan’s got great taste, I give him equal points to Rod Stewart’s cigarette nodes for that. Dad had a cassette with seventeen versions of “Autumn Leaves” on it. It is one of the most perfectly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Who wouldn’t want to sing it? I started singing it on my dog walk after safely thank God making it home and getting the dog around the block. And singing it made me think of my dad and his seventeen versions, and suddenly I wanted to call my brother and sob, “I miss Dad, I miss Dad,” but didn’t because I didn’t want him thinking I’m emotionally unstable due to childlessness or hormones.

Luckily I saw Lake and her owner coming up the sidewalk, and pulled it together in time to talk about the weather and our shoulders and the shoveling. And by the time they passed, the dad sadness was gone.

That’s a good thing about longterm grief. It’s just as intense when it hits, all images of Dad and his gentle smile and excellent taste and the longing to just be in a room with him, asking what he thinks of the new Dylan album, but it’s more polite than new grief. Dad and Uncle Ralph used to debate whether certain vocalists were singers or crooners. Singer meant a serious artist, whereas a crooner, like Dean Martin, was just someone who sold a song with style. I think they used to argue over which one Sinatra was.

I think Dylan must fall into the singer category, whereas someone like Stewart only gets to be a crooner. But also, and I’ll bet this never happened in Dad and Ralph’s day, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone get the singer tag just because I couldn’t bear listening to his music long enough to decide for sure.

No direction home

Django in park
No one has noted her resemblance to Dylan.

I saw the woodcarver at the park, walking with Mr. Wu and their dogs. They were so far away that when I waved and they didn’t wave back, I figured they just didn’t see me.

I walked a little further, then turned to call Django and leash her up. I noticed that the woodcarver seemed to be staring at me, which was silly because they were so far away. But there was something purposeful about his walk. And I had no reason to avoid them, I reasoned. I’d done my homework at last. So instead of leashing Django up I threw the ball in their direction, and she bounded for it.

As she neared the two dogs, Django lost interest in the ball. Her run drifted into a walk, and then she just stood, as if she had no idea what she was doing there.

“Get the ball, Django,” I called.

She looked at me blankly.

“The ball! The ball!”

She trotted away, in the general direction of the two dogs, while also managing to ignore them completely. I walked back to pick up the ball myself, just as the two men neared.

“Hi!” I called.

The woodcarver was still staring, a fierce smile on his face. “So you changed your mind.”

“My mind?”

“About the carving, you changed your mind.”

“No! I did it! I went to your site.”

“Did you?”

“I did. You wrote me back!”

“No, I don’t go near that. It must have been my son.”

“Well then, he wrote me, a profile shot and a closeup.”

“Yeah, well, I had a little time before.”

“Oh yeah, well, I guess I missed Christmas, ha ha.”

He wasn’t smiling anymore. Suddenly I realized that when I ran into him last week and asked about carvings of dogs, and also asked how long it takes, and come to think of it also asked if there was any chance of getting one by Christmas, and that’s right also said I’d go to his site, that, well, he took me seriously. Suddenly I felt like one of those flakes who do the sort of thing I’d just done.

Mr. Wu smiled at us, hands clasped behind his back. I said, “Sorry, I… the holidays… maybe I could shoot for a Valentines present?”

The woodcarver said, “After I make it, if you don’t like it you don’t have to buy it.”

“Oh.” I wanted to say, I’m sure I’ll like it, but somehow that felt like an insult to his process. I offered, “I have another friend who might want one.”

“Get yours first and if they like it they can get one.”

“But we’re going to do a photo shoot.”

“A shot just like that would be perfect.” Django was standing absolutely still, in profile. She and the woodcarver looked like they expected me to whip out a camera.

Mr. Wu said, “That dog has very unusual spots.” He said this like he’d never seen her before, though I’ve run into him at the park at least twice a week for the past six or seven years. At first I’d see him standing alone, dogless, east of the path, examining some detail of a tree. Hands clasped behind him, head slightly cocked, as if some leaf or bit of bark was refusing to be categorized. Then he got a dog and started walking with the woodcarver, or the guy with the unpredictable Golden.

Django stopped posing and wandered off to look for her ball, which was now back in my pocket. Mr. Wu added, “She looks like an African wild dog.”

“Does she?” I said, which I always say, although I’ve already compared her to photos of African wild dogs online and reached the same conclusion.

I said, “I’ll get you the pictures.” The woodcarver looked skeptical, which was understandable. He and Mr. Wu continued walking, and I decided to do another lap in the opposite direction.