I know squat about Bob Dylan.
My musical education has been piecemeal. I discovered the Beatles via a series of homemade cassettes passed around my elementary school playground. The Who entered my life in high school, when I cultivated an obsession with Quadrophenia just to impress a guy I had a crush on. I finally became acquainted with Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline in college; it seemed like a good idea to audit Country 101 if I planned to reside in Indiana for four years without incident.
But I never quite got around to Dylan. I can sing every song on Donovan's Greatest Hits from memory, but conjuring up even a couplet from "Like a Rolling Stone" requires headache-inducing concentration. For all the obvious impact he's had on my life, Bob Dylan might as well be Chester A. Arthur.
Even as I type, I can hear shouting from the ramparts: "Throw the bastard out!" How can it be that a professional rock critic, a former contributor to Rolling Stone, knows next to nothing about one of the most influential songwriters in history?
Simple. There are no prerequisites for being a music journalist.
Lawyers have to pass a bar exam. Young doctors toil for years in grueling residencies. Even bartenders have to be licensed. But all that's required to make a living dispensing crackpot opinions about pop music is at least one working ear, a willingness to earn less than the pimple-faced teen who makes your morning latte, and a certain knack for subject-verb agreement (and judging from the prose of some of my colleagues, the latter is optional).
My knowledge of the fundamentals has huge gaps; despite my devil-may-care tone, I'm not proud of my condition. Consequently, when I hear contemporaries comparing an emerging artist to established luminaries like Dylan or "The Boss," I usually take notice, because I'm still trying to discern exactly what those points of reference are supposed to represent.
The press release accompanying Nothing But a Dream (on SpinART/ Cooking Vinyl), the new CD from Paul Kelly, opens with a quote likening the Australian singer-songwriter to Springsteen, Ray Davies, and Elvis Costello all in the same sentence. Elsewhere, Kelly's been put in the same league as heavyweights from Shakespeare to, yes, Dylan, for whom he played the support slot on the Grizzled One's 2001 tour Down Under.
I can't tell you how Nothing But a Dream stacks up against Love and Theft, but I still recognize a superlative album when I hear one. Kelly's singing throughout is imbued with a conversational quality that immediately draws the listener in, yet it adapts just as well to the rousing anthem "Love Is the Law" as it does to quieter numbers like the wee-small-hours musings of "Midnight Rain" and the frank "Would You Be My Friend?". Kelly even interpolates elements of drum and bass into "Just About to Break," the sort of production experiment that normally spells tragedy for troubadour types.
The 47-year-old, who also duets with Kasey Chambers on "I Still Pray" on her recent Barricades & Brickwalls, is blessed with the all-important eye for details, too. Nowhere is this more evident than on "Every Fucking City" (one of four bonus tracks from his Roll on Summer EP tacked onto the American version of Nothing), a tour-diary-cum-ballad in which he decries his ability to "order sandwiches in seven different languages" as he follows a doomed romance around the capitals of Europe.
But, wouldn't you know it, my favorite new songwriter isn't new at all. Kelly began performing back home in the mid-'70s and cut his first single in 1979. Even as I was busy championing cult bands like Hunters & Collectors and Mental as Anything during the "Australian Invasion" of the '80s, Paul Kelly and the Messengers were racking up kudos for A&M's U.S. editions of albums like Gossip and Under the Sun. His 1997 greatest hits set, Songs From the South, was a huge chart hit in Australia, and he sold out shows in Los Angeles and New York during his last stateside tour in 1999.
What I know about Bob Dylan couldn't fill half a page in this paper. But there's one thing of which I'm certain: The wonderful reward for coming upon artists like Dylan or Kelly late in life is the rich back catalog of recordings just waiting to be explored. I look forward to Kelly's follow-up to Nothing, but in the interim I'll be quite content delving into the first 20-plus years of his career.
And hopefully, someday soon, not knowing who Paul Kelly is will be as embarrassing for some young buck with a word processor as my admission about Dylan.