Rambling, Gambling Milli
"I'm just as good a singer as Caruso... Have you heard me sing? Have you ever heard me sing?" --Bob Dylan, Don't Look Back (1966) Seven years ago, when Milli Vanilli were still around and functioning as a not- group, Vanilli's Rob Pilatus made headlines when he told a Time reporter that his band was better than Bob Dylan--"any Bob Dylan," actually, which only confuses the issue, so let's forget about the "any" for a moment. A whole lot of people sure took righteous offence upon hearing of Rob's boast, but naturally nobody bothered to check if he was right. Well, I have, and he was--Milli Vanilli were probably better than Bob Dylan. Surprisingly, it's not even all that close I know, I know, apples and oranges. Milli Vanilli had just the one album to their credit, while Dylan's numbered well over 300 (with no one around to stop him from releasing any more), including 63 live sets, three famous folk-rock records, a lavishly packaged box set, and 42 LPs alone since he embraced and then discarded Christianity in the early '80s, at which time many of the people who were most outraged by Rob's honesty more or less forgot all about Bob Dylan. So bringing quantity and/or longevity into the equation is out of the question, and anyway I'm pretty sure that wasn't what Rob had in mind. The only fair way to compare them is to establish a point system, square off Girl You Know It's True against each and every Dylan album individually, and see who comes out on top. It's a system that's not flawless, granted, but it does yield results. It's a good system First, the raw data: ________________________________________________________________________________________ 1) Bob Dylan Albums That Are Better Than Girl You Know It's True: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revis- ited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966), John Wesley Harding (1968), Blood on the Tracks (1975), The Basement Tapes (1975) 2) Bob Dylan Albums That Are No Better But No Worse Than Girl You Know It's True: Bob Dylan (1962), Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), Nashville Skyline (1969), New Morning (1970), Desire (1976), Infidels (1983), World Gone Wrong (1993) 3) Bob Dylan Albums That Are Not As Good As Girl You Know It's True: The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964), Self Portrait (1970), Pat Garret & Billy the Kid (1973), Dylan (1973), Planet Waves (1974), Hard Rain (1976), Street-Legal (1978), Bob Dylan at Budokan (1979), Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), Shot of Love (1981), Real Live (1984), Empire Burlesque (1985), Knocked Out Loaded (1986), Down in the Groove (1987), Dylan & the Dead (1988), Oh Mercy (1989), Under the Red Sky (1990), Good As I Been to You (1992) 4) Bob Dylan Albums That Can't Logically Be Compared To Girl You Know It's True: Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (1967), Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II (1971), Before the Flood (1974), Biograph (1985), The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 (1991), Greatest Hits Vol. III (1994), MTV Unplugged (1995) ________________________________________________________________________________________ Obviously there's some subjectivity at work there on my behalf, but if anything I'm being lenientómost of the ties I'd personally give to Milli Vanilli, but I've de- ferred to conventional wisdom that says records like New Morning and World Gone Wrong are prominent fixtures within Dylan's output. I want to take great care not to throw the system out of whack with any spurious data. If we closed the books right now, Milli Vanilli would emerge a rather easy 19-7 victor, with seven ties and seven no-decisions rendered null and void. Sounds reasonable enough to me, but the numbers still need a little work, namely some historical and geo- graphical context. Here's my thinking: since it's 1997, which means that Highway 61 Revisited is closer to the Andrews Sisters than we are now to Highway 61 (a benign way of saying that it's what you might call yesterday's news), it only seems fair to weight each individual match-up along a sliding scale that awards extra points to more recent recordings, thus placing a premium on contemporaneity. Let's say we give two points to the winner when comparing Girl You Know It's True to a Dylan album recorded since 1980; one-and-a-half points for a win in the '70s; and a single point only to those contests waged in the '60s, all but one of which shows a Bob Dylan that people insist on confus- ing with the author of "Changing of the Guards" to be on equal footing with and usually better than Milli Vanilli. Retabulated, Milli Vanilli's line now reads (10 x 2) + (8 x 1.5) + (1 x 1); Dylan's, (0 x 2) + (2 x 1.5) + (5 x 1). New score: Milli Vanilli - 33, Bob Dylan - 8. That's more like it. There's still one more important thing to factor in, though, what baseball analyst Bill James (the inspiration for this study) calls a "park adjust- ment." This is the way to neutralize the conditions under which like tasks are performed in unlike environs, which in James's field means accounting for the fact that it's much easier for Dante Bichette to do his hitting in Coors Field than it is for Mike Piazza to do his in Dodger Stadium. For our own purposes, we know that Bob Dylan was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, a state that besides housing such formidable hitters as Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kent Hrbek, Kirby Puckett, and Chuck Knoblauch, is also home to Prince, Husker Du, the Replacements, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, the Jets, the Suicide Commandos, Ta Mara & the Seen, all the way down to Soul Asylum and many other lesser lights too numerous to mention. Milli Vanilli, of course, were from West Germany; although West Germany has given us some excellent film directors, and probably even a few pretty good baseball players, the only bands I can think of from across that way are Can, Silver Convention, and Einsturzende Neubauten--thanks guys! Clearly Minnesota's a lot more con- ducive to music-making than West Germany, and for this Milli Vanilli must be upgraded and Bob Dylan penalized. I propose park adjustments of 1.10 for Minnesota and 0.90 for West Germany, comparable to James's 1982 figures for the difference between Wrigley Field and the Astrodome, and really rather conservative when you consider you're dealing with a ratio of probably 100 Minnesotan bands for every West German counterpart. Thus adjusted, Milli Vanilli's score increases to 36.7 (33/0.90), while Dylan's drops to 7.3 (8/1.10). 36.7 to 7.3 in Milli Vanilli's favor--that's more than five times as good, and I still haven't mentioned the Band of the Hand soundtrack one way or the other. Which reminds me: even if you're adamant that Dylan deserves credit for side projects like the Travel- ing Wilburys and "Sun City"--even if you're Adam Ant himself--you'd better balance them off with Renaldo & Clara, "We Are the World," and other equally stellar achievements. They all even out in the end, believe me. Now that we've finished the research part of our study, maybe someone can explain something to me. Shortly before Rob's Time interview was published, Public Enemy's Pro- fessor Griff emerged from some research of his own to declare that Jews were responsible for the majority of wickedness that goes on in the world, an ingenious idea that you and I and the entire cast of Toy Story know isn't true. Most pop critics came down hard on Griff, but not all of them; some strained and serpentined and jumped through hoops to rationalize Griff's bombshell, saying at the time that he must have been misquoted, or he's only citing secondhand sources, or he's just trying to "start a dialogue" (I've always loved that phrase), or he's engaging in a little harmless hype (you know, as in "Don't Believe the--"), or it doesn't really matter what Griff says because he's not a key member of Public Enemy, or the favourite riposte of all, "What about 'One in a Million'! What about 'One in a Million'! What about 'One in a Million'!" This was chewed around ad nauseum in the media for the next few months, with everyone taking turns flog- ging a dead horse in much the same way I am now, until finally PE's public relations firm in the early '90s, Spin magazine, put the matter to rest by walking Griff through an interview in their 5th Anniversary Issue in which the contrite Professor announced he was wrong, Jews weren't to blame for nuclear warfare and The Pat Sajak Show--and if you wanted to find out more you needed to check out his new solo album, available in better record stores everywhere. Fair enough--I always held Tom Scott and Dan Miller responsible for what was wrong with The Pat Sajak Show, and I'm pretty sure both of them were as Gentile as could be. Anyway, practically minutes before the Griff matter was resolved, Rob fires off his polemic--which, I hasten to remind you, I've just proven to be true--and everybody save me starts SCREAMING BLOODY MURDER. Have pop critics got their priorities straight, or what? The backlash was so swift and furious that Rob's basically intimidated into the old "I've been misquoted" panacea, but of course no one believes him, and who cares any- way since he has nothing to apologize for. Maybe Rob should have said that Milli Vanilli were less wicked than Bob Dylan, footnoting the as-yet-unrepentant Griff for support, and he would have been the recipient of at least scattered sympathy. Happily the story died quickly, else we might have been treated to such moving acts of penance as Milli Vanilli Sings the Bob Dylan Songbook, or maybe a mea culpa from Rob in Spin's 10th Anniversary Issue: "I was wrong; after listening to Bob Dylan at Budokan numerous times, I want to go on record here and now as saying it's really quite special." C'mon people, no one said Milli Vanilli were better than the Jefferson Airplane, or Dionne Warwick, or Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, claims that any one of which would have been ridiculous (I ran each through the system just to make sure). Rob simply made a realistic appraisal of his band as being better than someone who I'm sure welcomed the free publicity at the time. This is the first in a series of 12 Rock 'n' Roll Abstracts. Next month: the Notorious B.I.G. vs. Petula Clark.