Category Archives: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan New York

Bob_Dylan_New_York

Bob Dylan New York
By June Skinner Sawyers
Roaring Forties Press- $14.95  £10.99

‘’New York in the early 1960s was perched on the precipice of change, moving from one era – the supposed ‘’innocence’’ of the Eisenhower years – to another – the dynamic but short-lived excitement of the Kennedy years. Indeed, the relatively short span between Eisenhower’s election in 1952 and the arrival of the Beatles in America in 1964 ushered in a decade or so of social change that shook American society to its very core on many levels: politically, socially, and economically. From peaceful civil rights demonstrations in the streets to racially tinged riots, the 1960s started with a gentle whimper and ended with an explosive bang.’’

Equally perched upon a wave of (said) unstoppable, almost miasmic, social-sea of change, was Bob Dylan’s arrival in New York City during the winter of 1961. It proved to be as musically and as socially explosive, as that of the decade itself. And to say he nurtured, bequeathed, radicalised and embraced the city with as much guts and gusto as just one singer-songwriter was capable, might be considered something of a discerning understatement.

The mere fact there’s a book dedicated to this very subject alone, underlines the unquestionable value and idiosyncratic importance that such an understatement might bestow.

Furthermore, this (partially) explains why it might be a good idea to read and fully contemplate June Skinner Sawyers’ Bob Dylan New York, wherein chapter eight’s ‘Thief of Thoughts,’ she reiterates the simple fact that: ‘’Dylan could have reinvented himself anywhere. But he didn’t go just anywhere. He went somewhere. He deliberately chose New York because New York, more than any other city or town, was his point of reference while growing up in Minnesota […]. ‘’There was nowhere else he could have gone to become Bob Dylan,’’ echoes music critic Anthony DeCurtis. ‘’It is hard to imagine where else he could have gone given what his aspirations were.’’’’

Even the word ‘aspirations,’ is a little lightweight, especially given the profound effect that both the city and the artist were to eventually have on one another. As such, it’s quite surprising that a book on the subject of Dylan and New York wasn’t written years ago; so all the more reason to embrace this one.

As a regular columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Sawyers is evidently just as much a Dylan fan as she is a formidable student. Both aspects of which are liberally peppered throughout what can only be described as yet another inviting and interesting book on the greatest songwriter this side of Lennon and McCartney.

David Marx

The Lives of Bob Dylan

the_lives_of_bo_dylan

Once Upon A Time – The Lives Of Bob Dylan
By Ian Bell
Mainstream Publishing – £20.00

I’ve read and reviewed a number of books on Bob Dylan, and what I really like about Ian Bell’s Once Upon A Time – The Lives of Bob Dylan is its non-sycophantic, yet exceedingly well versed and highly researched, kick-in-the-bollocks analysis.

In other words, the author isn’t afraid of coming clean where perhaps his subject might. That’s not to say Dylan has anything to hide – far from it. For if any sublime artist, and there aren’t many, has had their entire adult/working life devoured every which way, it’s surely Sir Bob. With the possible exceptions of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles, surely no one has ever been so scrutinized, so analysed (and some might say patronised); so questioned, so discussed; so second (not to mention third, fourth and fifth) guessed as yer man Bob.

Yet still the books keep coming.

Still the hyper-evaluation is wrought with an individualistic need to be heard, read, developed and believed – depending on viewpoint and of course, fandom. Which, on far too many an occasion, is surely way too dressed up and random to be taken seriously – although such is most definitely not the case here.

Bell is obviously a fan. But he’s also a critic, and an excellent one at that. In the chapter ‘I Think I’ll Call It America’ for instance, he scathingly examines one of Dylan’s most semi-cryptic and controversial songs ever written, ‘Ballad In Plain D.’ And he does so in such an astute way, that it leaves many of his peers both vacuously pontificating as well as aimlessly wandering around in the gutless wilderness: ‘’Suze Rotolo believed it too. Though she could no longer tolerate the man, she did not once question his genius. That was no doubt part of the intractable problem. Fame, the cult of ‘Bob Dylan,’ was destroying their relationship as surely as his near-addiction to infidelity. All that remained was to put this love affair out of its misery. Dylan, deservedly, lost his self-respect in the process. The final scenes were ugly. They earned a song that was uglier still, cheap, nasty – you could call this poetry’s revenge – an abysmal piece of self-indulgence.’’

Where else might you stumble across, let alone read, such caustic, controversial criticism – especially at this late stage in Dylan’s career? Not many places I’d have thought.

Three paragraphs on (among others), the author continues along the same theme – only from Dylan’s perspective – substantiates his penchant for considered argument: ‘’Two decades later he had the good grace to regret ‘Ballad In Plain D,’ telling Bill Flanagan, ‘I look back and say ‘’I must have been a real schmuck to write that.’’ I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I’ve written, maybe I could have left that alone.’’

Throughout Once Upon A Time, Bell illuminates an area of the Minnesota Bard’s work, persona and mindset, that is of an entirely different persuasion than most. Thus ensuring its 563 pages are as much an enjoyable read, as they are both enlightening and refreshing

Earlier in the book, the writer effortlessly sheds his own take on Dylan the carefree, idiosyncratic, psychological tough-nut. He, who if Bell is to be believed, doesn’t really have a fleeting care in the world: ‘’To this day there is something dreamlike about his long career. He likes (or needs) to be elusive, but that fact doesn’t explain much. Wounded former friends, dropped like litter down the years, tend not to offer glowing character references. They say – and they have been saying it since the early 1960s – that he doesn’t give a damn. That doesn’t seem relevant either. If artists were to be disqualified from the cultural steeplechase on the grounds of obnoxious behaviour, few would make the starting line. That’s probably why nature’s groupies advance the faintly preposterous idea that a true creator is obliged – the Rimbaud thing again – to be a cold-hearted son of a bitch. Geniuses: what can you do?’’

Indeed, what can you do? Can’t live without ‘em, but at least we don’t have to live with ‘em. Instead, we can take and we can glean arbitrarily, at will, at any time of day or night. We can merely dip into whatever it is we want from our self-chosen geniuses – and let’s not mistake ourselves here, Dylan is a genius in every possible connotation of the word – without having to take any egotistical, excess, gobshite like behaviour along the way. We are forever entitled to thoroughly wallow within the pristine, beauty (of the poetry and the melody) of say ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ without having to resort to any form of sacrosanct, artistic wank or ransom.

It’s ours, whenever we want: for all the taking, all the healing, all the enjoying, all the whatever.

If however, you want to delve behind the veil and find out more behind what makes someone like Bob Dylan tick, then this is most definitely a book you should consider purchasing. You absolutely won’t regret it.

David Marx

Bob Dylan – The Stories Behind The Songs 1962-1969

Bob Dylan –
The Stories Behind The Songs 1962-1969
By Andy Gill
Carlton Books – £9.99

No matter how much one reads on Bob Dylan, be it about the man himself, his extraordinary catalogue of work, or a fraught, critical assimilation of the two, it’s almost impossible to arrive at a satisfactory, let alone cathartic conclusion. There’s always so much more to invariably stumble upon and as such, ultimately discover within the truly idiosyncratic thesis of the Dylan mind.

Indeed, the world according to Bob Dylan is so vast and so colourful and so strewn with mayhem and madness, it’s night impossible to get a grip. The all
illusive answers are perhaps, blowing in the wind after all. Just like William Shakespeare before him (again, both the man and the myth), Dylan too, has comparable tomb of work that is riddled with more speculation than one can possibly contend with. But unlike William the Wordsmith, Dylan is still very much alive and kicking and touring and answerable to no one. Which may partially explain why he still chooses to bestow the world with such elongated conjecture.

Never confirming or conforming – denying or admitting.

Hence the sheer number of books written about him, of which Andy Gill’s Bob Dylan – The Stories Behind The Songs 1962-1969 is an acutely important one. Reason being, it’s short, it’s to the point but more importantly, it doesn’t ramble unto a plateau of fog induced, philosophical meandering (like so many I’ve read). It is what it is – a book which ‘’examines the stories behind every Dylan song on the following albums: Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline.’’

In a way, it’s a Dylan dictionary of songs in chronological album order, unto which the reader can briefly indulge by way of succinct analysis and clarification – which at the end of the day, is all we sometimes ever want (and need).

Homing in on one of Dylan’s most celebrated periods, the recording of Blonde On Blonde, the author writes: ‘’Given the lyrical malleability […], it’s perhaps best not to try and ascribe too literal an interpretation to ‘Visions Of Joanna,’ which is more of an impressionistic mood anyway. If it doesn’t really matter to the writer whether it’s the peddler or the fiddler who speaks to the countess, why should it matter to us? The song remains one of the high points of Dylan’s canon, particularly favoured among hardcore Dylanophiles, possibly because it so perfectly sustains its position on the cusp of poetic semantics, forever teetering on the brink of lucidity, yet remaining impervious to strict decipherment.’’

To substantiate the aforementioned point about conjecture, even here, Gill aligns himself with the shimmering supposition to that of his subject; for which the latter is renowned and the former (and perhaps by default, us) could be considered none the wiser. Even though the author pertains to set the record straight by then writing: ‘’For a long time, the song went under the working title of ‘Seems Like A Freeze-Out’ (a term meaning to ‘’stand-off’’), which evokes something of the air of nocturnal suspension in which the verse tableaux are sketched. They’re full of whispering and muttering, low-volume radio, echoes and ghosts, a misty, crepuscular netherworld by the increasingly familiar denizens of Dylan’s imagination, a parade of lowlifes, functionaries, all-night girls and slumming snobs.’’

If nothing else, Bob Dylan – Stories Behind the Songs 1962-1969 is an enlightening, as well as an entertaining read; which, given the brevity, the depth, and the importance of the subject matter, makes it a worthy addition to anyone’s (Dylan) library.

David Marx

The Gospel According To Bob Dylan – The Old, Old Story For Modern Times

The Gospel According to Bob Dylan
The Old, Old Story for Modern Times
By Michael J. Gilmour
Westminster John Knox Press – $15.00

In the ‘Concluding Thoughts’ of The Gospel According to Bob Dylan – The Old, Old Story of Modern Times, author Michael J. Gilmour writes: ‘’When we hear a song for the first time, it matters whether we are in love at that moment or broken-hearted, spiritually hungry or indifferent to matters of faith, looking to be entertained or forced to think, angry at the world or motivated to make it a better place – all such contexts and a thousand others determine our experience of songs and perception of meaning in the sounds and words we encounter.’’

Thoroughly spot on writing methinks, as the context through which we initially hear and experience music, is invariably crucial to our eventual understanding and (hopefully) ever-lasting appreciation of it. Thus, inadvertently explaining why a great deal of modern music is transiently considered powerful, when more often than not, it really, really isn’t. The Kooks, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and to a by far more disturbing degree, Take That, are all quintessential albeit moot instances.

Pop music, for all intents of a business like refrain, doesn’t need to be good anymore, in order to be considered remotely resolute or tribally dysfunctional. It can, and quite often is, complete and utter tone-deaf-wank-shite – of which there are several hundred thousand million examples, the two most crucial of which, surely have to be Cheryl Cole and Justin Sparkpants or whatever his name happens to be.

For amid the pristine essence of musical truth, he or she who is actually doing the singing makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. Especially when said singing is anchored to that of a cunning concoction of youth’n’yesteryear. Those lurky, murky, happy days, when we were all teenagers in love. And if not in love, then on the prowl and on the nickel.

When the gospel according to arrogance and hormones reigned supreme.

Just as there was never, ever a stasis st(r)ained time, when all things weren’t open to such quintessential conjecture, so too does the same ring true for a thorough understanding of Bob Dylan. To complicate matters further, as a result of the twentieth-century bard-cum-minstrel-cum-soothsayer-ad-infinitum having turned seventy this year, a deluge of books have hit the streets.

Each purporting to be in the know.
Each purporting to be telling it as it is.

What accounts for The Gospel According To Bob Dylan being a little different, and therefore, a tad more inviting to read than most, is the preface upon which it has been written. But even here, as Dylan makes clear and as Gilmour himself acknowledges, ‘tis all conjecture: ‘’‘’I’m not good at defining things,’’ he told Robert Hilburn in a 2004 interview […]. Musicians function as mediums, priests, stained-glass windows, or icons, pointing beyond themselves to something far bigger, but they cannot define that vague something for the listener.’’

It’s this vagueness, with which Bobheads and curious readers the entire world over, have always had to grapple, and eventually come to terms with.

Furthermore, the degree to which the ‘V’ word is vexed or volatile, vacant or viable, remains firmly entrenched within in the eye of the ever gullible, the well-read or the simply couldn’t care less. In the chapter ‘Are You Serious,’ Gilmour writes: ‘’Bob Dylan’s music moves many listeners out of themselves, out of their ‘’habitual, common-sense world.’’

Are we, upon reading The Gospel According to Bob Dylan, any closer to understanding Dylan’s dense, oft misunderstood, varying religious complexities? A whole lot depends on the degree to which one is prepared to take Gilmour, by way of literary default, at his word.

David Marx

Behind The Shades – The 20th Anniversary Edition

Behind The Shades
The 20th Anniversary Edition
By Clinton Heylin
Faber and Faber – £20.00

This 20th Anniversary Edition of Clinton Heylin’s Behind the Shades is a terrific, and at times, mesmerizing read; which ought hardly be surprising considering the author is recognised throughout much of the western world, as perhaps being the leading authority on Bob Dylan He was after all, co-founder of Wanted Man – the British magazine devoted to studying the songwriter’s life, times and work – while for a number for a years, he also edited the news section of its quarterly magazine, The Telegraph. He has also written two exceptionally comprehensive books on artist’s huge collection of work: Revolution in the Air (Vol. 1) and Still on the Road (Vol.2) both of which, really do stand alone amid the ever-increasing pantheon of publications on Dylan.

In other words, the author knows his subject.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clinton Heylin knows things about Bob that Dylan himself doesn’t even know. A conspirational intrigue that may partially explain why this book succeeds in taking the reader on a thought provoking and undeniably complex journey; a journey best described as Dylan’s vast, colourful and seemingly endless career.

Having just turned seventy, the artist still shows no sign of letting up or slowing down. He recently played shows in Vietnam and China for the first time in his career, both of which garnered as much praise as they did controversy. The latter of which is absolutely nothing new in a career crammed with some form of provocation and altercation.

He is after all, the archetypal song and dance man with something to say.

And boy, doesn’t he say it. With the exception of John Lennon, Dylan says it like no one else ever has. Nor is capable. Of Blood on the Tracks – a veritable masterpiece, my favourite ever Dylan recording and perhaps one of the finest albums ever released, Heylin writes (in the chapter ‘Spring Turns Slowly To Autumn’): ‘’Blood on the Tracks remains not only the central pivot of Dylan’s career but of the rock aesthetic itself. With this album, the man shifted axis. Ten years after he turned the rock & roll brand of pop into rock, a self-conscious, albeit populist, art form, he renewed its legitimacy as a form capable of containing the work of a mature artist. He also gave it a new self-consciousness, just as the linchpins of first-generation rock were coming to the end of their respective streaks of inspiration. The Rolling Stones would never top their four albums from Beggars Banquet through Exile on Main Street, 1968 through 1972; neither Lennon nor McCartney would come close to the quality of Revolver, The White Album, or Abbey Road; Pete Townshend was rock-operaed out after 1973’s Quadrophenia; even David Bowie had concluded his early seventies trilogy of consecutive rock classics.’’

Naturally, not everyone would agree with such sentiment, but Heylin’s words are rather hard to argue with. Depending on viewpoint, Dylan was, and to a degree, still is, somewhat relentless in relation to the quality control of his official recording output. And this from an artist, renowned for not ever wanting to record more than three takes of any particular song.

Moreover, the author goes on to substantiate the above when he writes: ‘’Only Dylan, whose mid-sixties canon was more daunting than all of the above, succeeded in producing an album that stoked up his genius quotient nearly ten years after he was thought to have left it by the roadside. And he had done it by reinventing his whole approach to language. Gone were the surrealistic turns of phrase on Blonde on Blonde, gone was the ‘wild mercury sound’ surrounding those mystical words. In their place was a uniformity of mood, a coherence of sound, and an unmistakable maturity to the voice – as if he had had to make Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning to assimilate those aspects of his voice into a stronger whole. He had never sung better.’’

Again, it’s difficult to disagree with what Heylin has to say here. For a start, the singer really hadn’t sung better. Even today, hearing Dylan sing ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ or ’Idiot Wind’ from said album, still transports me to a place way beyond the ether of artistic evaluation.

Suffice to say, there is so much more to read in Behind the Shades that is of equally candid and considered importance. It truth, it doesn’t get any better (nor captivating nor comprehensive) than this. This book is simply brilliant.

David Marx

Song of the North Country – A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Pichaske

Song Of The North Country –
A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan
By David Pichaske
Continuum – £14.99

I always find it endearingly remarkable, the degree to which worldwide Dylanologists will ponder over and proclaim, dissect and totally testify to that of (m)any of the great man’s thousands upon thousands of encoded, cryptic words. Such pondering and dissection in and of itself, is surely akin to that of a thousand lifetimes worth of investigation, which, depending on era, album, year, religion, polka-dot-shirt, wide array of musicians and assortment of bands – let alone The Band, might well be the point.

This admittedly erudite and rather cannily written book, Song of the North Country – A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan is no exception to the above rule. None that is, except for that which its title proclaims. Although writing in the book’s third chapter ‘Bob Dylan and the Pastoral Tradition,’ author David Pichaske (whose previous books include Rooted: Six Midwest Writers Of Place and Poland in Transition: 1989-1991) writes: In Chronicles, a mature Dylan looks back over his career, recounting episodes and visions from his early years. Its 88,000 words contain a wealth of Midwestern idioms and vocabulary preferences […]. In that book, Dylan mentions ‘’snow’’ 27 times (not counting Hank Snow and Snow White); ‘’rain’’ 12 times (not counting Ma Rainy or ‘’Singin’ in the Rain’’)’ ‘’storm’’ ten times (including ‘’lightning storm,’’ ‘’thunderstorm,’’ and the aforementioned ‘’shit storm,’’ but discounting the song ‘’Stormy Weather’’) and ‘’wind’’ 26 times. He uses the word ‘’cloud’’ ten times, ‘’leaf/leaves’’ ten times, and ‘’tree’’ 26 times (including oak trees, elms, and banana trees). He uses the word ‘’earth’’ 14 times, ‘’mountain’’ 11 times, ‘’river’’ 13 times (not including ‘’Joan Rivers’’), ‘’wood(s)’’ nine times (not including Woody Guthrie or Woody Allen, but counting ‘’my neck of the woods’’ and ‘’woodpecker’’).

Now what I really want to know is, how does he know? Has David Pichaske literally gone through Chronicles (a terrific book by the way) in its entirety, and actually counted all the aforementioned words?

If so, why?
Who, after all, cares?
And what possible bearing does it have on anything remotely interesting? What’s more, what possible bearing does it (truly) have in relation to Dylan’s roots in Minnesota and the Midwest? Surely, this is the sort of stuff that might make Dylan himself run for the hills amid a ‘’shit storm’’ proclamation of not only ‘’My God, they’ve killed ‘em all,’’ but ‘’My God, they’ve missed the bloody point entirely.’’

No wonder Dylan changes religion every few years!

I personally couldn’t give a toss if Dylan mentioned the word ‘’anorak’’ 17, 000 times over a three-week period – just so long as it was applicable to the subject and the song in hand. That said, the author does endeavour to tackle a wide-array of subjects relating to Dylan’s work as both a musician and writer – much of whose work, to this day, might still invariably be anchored to that of the Midwest: ‘’I’m North Dakota-Minnesota-Midwestern… I speak that way. I’m from some place called Iron Range. My brains and feelings have come from there.’’

From wordplay and pronunciation in the chapter ‘’And the Language That He Used,’’ to the influence of education, politics, religion and the judicial system upon Dylan in ‘Bob Dylan’s Prairie Populism,’ it might be said there’s something for everyone amid these 303 pages – including perhaps, the subject himself, who, I’m sure would be more than just a little tickled by some of what he’d read: ‘’Michael Gray sees Dylan as offering parallel after parallel between himself and Christ: ‘’In retrospect, it is as if Dylan eventually converts to Christianity because of the way he has identified with Christ and understood his struggles through his own’’ (Song: 210, 211).’’

Now there’s food and cross-religious-dressing for thought.
Never a dull moment eh?

David Marx

The Cambridge Companion To Bob Dylan

The Cambridge Companion To Bob Dylan

Edited by Kevin J. H. Dettmar

Cambridge University Press

£14.99 (paperback) ISBN: 9780521714945

£45.00 (hardback) ISBN: 9780521886949

Like The Beatles, it’s hard to write about Bob Dylan without being in some sort of intrinsic awe. That many consider the sheer audacity of Dylan’s artistry and output as being revolutionary, has, to all intents and purposes, evolved into being the norm, rather than the exception. So no surprises there. But what I do find a bit surprising – and in turn, hopelessly exhilarating and entertaining – are the countless (solipsistic) claims and counter-claims placed upon him.

The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan being no exception.

What makes Dylan so important, and dare I repeat, exhilarating and entertaining, are the many, many sides to his personality. As Bernard Paturel is quoted as saying in the eleven page Introduction: ‘’There’s so many sides to Bob Dylan, he’s round.’’ It is this, along with his pleomorphic and at times, gut wrenching; kaleidoscopic and other times, awe-inspiring and imposing catalogue of songs, that account for the artist’s continuing validity.

Once again, with the exception of The Beatles, there’s no one comes remotely close to Dylan. And the writers herein know this all to well, as Kevin J. H. Dettmar continues in his Introduction: ‘’Dylan’s work is literary, I would want to agree, in the most fundamental of ways: his is a sensitivity, and a sensibility, that turns almost instinctively to the resources of literary language in order to manifest itself, ‘transmuting,’ as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus brashly proclaims, ‘the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.’’’

Divided into two sections (Part I Perspectives & Part II Landmark Albums), these seventeen essays investigate an array of colourful and salient Dylan terrain. From David Yaffe’s ‘Bob Dylan and the Anglo-American tradition’ to Barbara O’Dair’s ‘Bob Dylan and gender politics,’ to David R. Shumway’s ‘Bob Dylan as cultural icon’ to the eight writings on Landmark albums – each thoroughly investigate their subject with dexterity and authority.

For instance, in ‘Bob Dylan and the Academy,’ Lee Marshall writes: ‘’The intimacy and sense of longing generated by ‘Visions of Johanna’ is not merely the result of the instruments, however; it is also created by Dylan’s singing, and the fact that song lyrics are mediated by a performance is something regularly overlooked by those taking a literary approach to Dylan’s work. When we read a poem, we read it in our own voice, at our own speed. With a song, we have no such control; the singer controls the pace at which we hear a song and the voice in which we hear it. In consort with the music, the singer gives us clues as to, for example, whether the authorial voice is male or female, or whether the words are sincere or ironic, that are not available in written poems.’’

Much to his own amusement (I’m sure), volume after volume continues to be written on Bob Dylan – which, of itself, feeds off itself – and there appears to be no end in sight. But so far as a literary springboard from which to embark and learn is concerned, I’d wholeheartedly recommend this Cambridge Companion.

Not only is it a worthy insight for the novice, it’s a more than interesting ride for worldwide Dylanologists.

David Marx
www.davidmarx.co.uk