The Next Bob Dylan (Happy Birthday Bob)

Zimmy turns 70 on Tuesday, and I thought rather than write a post about the man and his music, since countless music rags and blogs will be covering that, I’d write a little about the debut LPs of three singer-songwriters who emerged in the early 70s who music critics all hailed as the “next Bob Dylan”. Dylan’s messiah-like influence on every aspect of 1960s culture, and subsequent disappearing act, left a void aching to be filled by a new voice of a generation. These three artists, however, proved to be too unique to conform to the record labels’ expectations of cookie-cutter Dylan doppelgangers and have since developed their own voices and careers that remain strong well into their fifth decade in music business.

Loudon Wainwright III – Loudon Wainwright (Album I) (1970)

Loudon Wainwright III’s first album is perhaps the most “dylanesque” of the bunch, if only in its instrumentation. A breath of fresh air for those who damned Bob for going electric, Album I has the confessional secrecy of a singer-songwriter wailing and whispering over his acoustic guitar. The album cover alone could easily have been taken after an open-mic performance in a dank, seedy New York City dive. From the opening track, “School Days”, Wainwright hooks you with his unstable, whining tenor and staggeringly original and evocative lyrics: “In the spring I had great hunger/I was Keats, I was Blake/My purple pencil pains I would bring/To frogs who sat entranced.” “School Days” shows signs of the voice that he has since developed in later songs: self-chastising, embarrassingly honest, and painfully funny. Yet songs like “Black Uncle Remus” and “Bruno’s Place” are a page out of the Dylan songbook, with undecipherable, folkloric, and biblical lyrics. Album I, although not a perfect record, is one of Wainwright’s most interesting efforts. More dark and morose than comic, Wainwright hadn’t developed his style of blending the two seamlessly yet, Album I is a beautiful 45 minutes of melancholia.

John Prine – John Prine (1971)

John Prine is a perfect record. Although the instrumentation is more of a barroom band than a one-man show, Prine’s midwestern country twang and simple, honest lyrics take the spotlight and keep you hanging on every word. Like the best debut records, John Prine is basically a greatest hits album. “Illegal Smile,” “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” “Paradise,” and “Angel from Montgomery” have become country and folk standards. Prine was “discovered” by Kris Kristofferson in the Chicago folk scene where Prine had already developed his voice, writing brilliant, sad songs with a veneer of one-liners and drunken insight. Only John Prine could make a line like “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes” sound a little funny.  John Prine is the logical conclusion of Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding, but the similarities are in genre alone.

Bruce Springsteen – Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)

Bruce Springsteen is a classic example of the success one-two punch: raw talent and unbridled ambition. He treated every album like it would be his last, so his first, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., shows a young, eager New Jersey singer-songwriter throwing every part of his soul onto tape. It’s a cliché now, but there are more lyrics in Blinded by the Light than in entire albums. But art is about quality, not quantity, and the Boss lays it on thick. Asbury Park is the first chapter of what would become the Springsteen ethos, searching for meaning and identity under the weight of blue collar and middle-class responsibility in New Jersey beach towns like Asbury Park. Comparison’s were inevitable between Bruce and Bob. Bruce’s long-form folk compositions got him signed to Columbia, but the tracks on Asbury Park, backed by Springsteen’s cohorts in the New Jersey rock club scene, sound fully fleshed out and hint at what was to come.

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