Bob Dylan –The Stories Behind The Classic Songs 1962-1969

Bob Dylan –
The Stories Behind The Classic Songs 1962-1969
By Andy Gill
Welbeck – £21.71

[…] whatever the merits (or otherwise) of his subsequent work, and not withstanding in particular the greatness of Blood on the Tracks, it’s upon his sixties songs that Bob Dylan’s reputation ultimately rests: that extraordinary sequence of records which unerringly tracked the tenor of the times as he moved through his various incarnations as raw young folkie, prince of protest, fold-rock innovator, symbolist rocker and country-rock pioneer.

(Andy Gill – Foreword)

Got no religion. Tried a bunch of different religions. The churches are divided. Can’t make up their minds, and neither can I.

(Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Chnagin’)

The song has to be of a certain quality for me to sing… one aspect it would have to have is that it didn’t repeat itself.

(Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding)

No matter how much one reads on Bob Dylan, be it about the man himself, his extraordinary catalogue of work, or perhaps a fraught, critical assimilation of the two – it remains almost impossible to arrive at a satisfactory (let alone cathartic) conclusion. Reason being, there is 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, so colourful, so strewn with mayhem and madness and genius, it is nigh impossible to get a grip.

Perhaps the (illusive) answers are blowing in the wind after all.

Just like William Shakespeare before him, both the man and the myth that is, Dylan too, has a comparable tomb of work that is simply riddled with more contention and speculation than one can ever possibly contend with. But unlike William the Wordsmith, Dylan is still very much alive and kicking and touring and answerable to no one.

This 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 on and about him, of which Andy Gill’s Bob Dylan – The Stories Behind The Classic Songs 1962-1969 is an acutely valid and important one. Not only is it succinct and to the point, more importantly, it never rambles unto a plateau of fog induced, philosophical meandering – unlike so like so many other Dylan books I have read and reviewed.

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 is a Dylan dictionary of songs in chronological album order, unto which the reader can briefly indulge by way of succinct analysis and clarification. Something, 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 – The Stories Behind The Classic Songs 1962-1969 is an altogether enlightening, as well as entertaining read. A quality, which, given the brevity, utter depth and importance of the subject matter, makes it an unquestionably worthwhile addition to anyone’s (Dylan) library.

David Marx

Mussolini and the Eclipse of Italian Fascism

Mussolini and the Eclipse of Italian Fascism –

From Dictatorship to Populism

By R.J. B. Bosworth

Yale University Press – £25.00

The image conveyed is a familiar one of a dictator who was half killer and half joke: ‘As the 1930s wore on, the new Roman empire, the Fascist empire, was beginning to fray. As a circus master, Mussolini was still without peer, but lacked the resources – and he the strategic prowess – to transform the political map of Europe. Not so Adolf Hitler.

One of the evident attractions of past evil is an alluring apprehension that it might return. In the contemporary world with rightist and nationalist populism ousting alternative political models in very many societies, the words dictatorship, fascism and totalitarianism have regained menace. There is much pondering whether we are ‘going back to the 1930s,’ as pundits phrase it.

(‘Mussolini and the Ghost of Adolf Hitler’)

With current cronyism in the UK’s government seemingly out of control, an ever increasing cleavage between the haves and the have nots, and former US President, Donald Trump, having re-written the rule book with regards rule and divide by way of fake news, of course we are going back to the 1930s.

There is absolutely no question about it whatsoever.

That so many societies are hurtling back to an epoch of monstrous calamity and dishonesty, might be considered one thing. That it is essentially being ignored in England, and positively promoted in the US (lest we forget that 74 million people voted for Trump), is altogether another. Another in as much that one cannot help but wonder where (on earth) society is heading with regards the inexorable, destabilizing onslaught of populism – which to all intents and foreboding purposes, Benito Mussolini fundamentally invented.

This is something that is already mentioned in the Introduction to Mussolini and the Eclipse of Italian Fascism – From Dictatorship to Populism, where the esteemed historian and author R. J. B. Bosworth categorically writes: ‘’Like quite a few other dictatorships, in their latter days, ideas mattered less in Mussolini’s rule, and booty (and hanging onto ‘power’) more. This sad mixture was the hollow solution to government offered by Mussolini’s descent into populism after 1932.This dictator was cheaply ready to evoke the people, while in reality bringing them death and destruction and ensuring that, after 1945, Italy would be granted a place in the world’s hierarchy well below the rung of the least of the Great Powers’’ (my italics).

If nothing else, this most readable and terrific of books, plays testament to history itself; especially within the arena of history (unfortunately) repeating itself. So although anchored in the past, it is quintessentially current in that it perfectly reflects what is happening right now, far better than many of today’s periodicals and media outlets.

As much is wholly substantiated when Professor Mark Gilbert, of Johns Hopkins University writes: ‘’This trenchant, eminently readable book is a convincing analysis of the decline and fall of Fascism. Its conclusion – that Mussolini’s Italy was a ‘’weak regime that went to its collapse broadcasting fake news about itself’’ – ensures that the book also has a contemporary ring.’’

If one wishes to fully understand and come to grips with the ideology behind the political cancer that is populism, then this is most definitely, definitely the book to read.

David Marx

Spiritual Crisis

Spiritual Crisis –

Varieties and Perspectives of a Transpersonal Phenomenon

Fransje de Waard

Imprint-Academic – £17.95

As horrific and frightful as the demonic-divine can appear to the mind, it is just as alluring and enthralling at the same time. And the creature that trembles before the numen, flinching most humbly in a manner to appropriate it. The mysterium is to him not only the wondrous, but the wonderful.

(‘Sanctity’)

When I see someone screaming in the street I think, take some medication mate, then you’ll be one with it. I’m very down-to-earth about it, you see. I’d be able to deal with someone on such a trip, but what on earth can the normal world do with someone like that, barking his head off with a bible on the Leidseplein?

(‘The Transpersonal Perspective’)

From the God Affair to the Beach Boys, the Scientific View to Sanctity, this rather readable book – given the unquestionably flimsy if not dense subject matter – traverses a wide terrain that both enlightens and asks questions.

Indeed, ‘’the mysterium is […] not only the wondrous, but the wonderful.’’

Might it be said that once this is realised and understood, the second part of the title of this semi-existential book, Spiritual Crisis – Varieties and Perspectives of a Transpersonal Phenomenon, is no longer as daunting a fixture as might initially seem.

To be perfectly honest, as soon as I normally hear such a declaration as transpersonal phenomenon, I normally turn the other way in search of a pint or Prince.

So to stumble upon an altogether down-to-earth book such as this, is encouraging to say the least. Either because I am inadvertently more accepting thereof, or the book itself is written in such a way as to be understood rather than to ward off: ‘’I was about 21 at the time. I had known already about all the drugs and stuff in that world, but the loneliness of it as well, the isolation, really dreadful! It’s all so superficial I think that the fear somehow creates excitement as well, and then I end up in that struggle, as if to say: no one’s going to get the better of me any more, I can stand up for myself […]. Because my father never taught me: come along darling, put your faith in life. No, everyone was a bastard. And as soon as the fear emerges, something happens like: I can’t cope, I’m going over the edge, I’ll end up with a psychosis’’ (‘The Transpersonal Perspective’).

I’m convinced we all know someone like the young woman described above; facing head on the countless demons that needn’t have been there in the first place. But sometimes amid life’s potential problems (and we all have them), we cannot see the light at the other end. In fact, sometimes, there is no other end – just darkness – which is why we sometimes have to make the most stern of choices.

Spiritual Crisissheds light as to how this may be accomplished.

After all, ‘’the American comedienne Lily Tomlin once observed with surprise that we call it ‘praying’ when we talk to God and ‘schizophrenia’ when God talks back to us.’’

David Marx

A Short History of German Philosophy

A Short History of German Philosophy

Vittorio Hösle

Princeton University Press – £18.99

Since there is no proportionality between the finite and the infinite, only learned ignorance of God is possible, in whom the greatest and the smallest coincide, because nothing is opposed to him.

(‘The Birth of God in the Soul’)

Research on nature is in fact infinite, but that does not mean that nature itself is infinite. At the same time Kant attributes a regulative function to the three ideas of reason: the soul, the world, and God.

(‘The German Ethical Revolution’)

In a relatively accessible narrative that deciphers complex ideas, Vittorio Hösle – a German-American philosopher and the Paul Kimball Professor of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame – herein traces the evolution of German philosophy, and anchors its prime influence within the parameters of German culture, science and politics.

All three areas of which are relatively resolute in relation to their non-malleability.

As such, this being a book on (German) philosophy, much of its essence can be placed within the socio-politico arena of what is taking place today. For instance, were the words of the first of the above opening quotes to be aligned with what is currently taking place on the streets of Belfast, one would undeniably need to question the essential reasoning behind the inexorable divide between Protestants and Catholics. Particularly in light of ‘’only learned ignorance of God is possible, in whom the greatest and the smallest coincide.’’

For learned ignorance, can indeed go a long way.

And when God is thrown into the equation, it can go a whole lot further.

So, even though A Short History of German Philosophy is a short history of German philosophy, much of its subject matter transcends; which, to all intents and philosophical purposes, is but one strand of what philosophy is all about, isn’t it?

One of the most interesting and refreshing aspects of these 268 pages (excluding Preface to the English Translation and Index of Names) is the light shed on Immanuel Kant, the chapter from which the second of the above opening quotes is taken (‘The German Ethical Revolution’).

It’s ‘’infinite’’nature is relative to the aforementioned, although the one prime difference is reason takes hold by way of ‘’the soul, the world, and God.’’

All things considered, this is at best, diversionary; at worst, endemic of yet further reasoning: ‘’Kant did not succeed in adducing a common property of all judgements that he considered synthetic a priori. But had he done nothing more than ask this question, he would have been assured a place of honour in the history of thought. Kant, however, sought not simply to list the synthetic a priori judgements he considered valid, but also to ground them, precisely in the so-called transcendental deductions.’’

Moreover, having lived on the United States myself, I found part of the author’s opening gambit in the Preface of particular interest: ‘’I have now lived long enough in the United States to say that such an interpretation of general culture and philosophy is quite alien to this great country. Here, philosophers understand themselves mainly as smart puzzle solvers – which is indeed noble work, but rarely inspires society at large or even other disciplines or the arts.’’

I couldn’t agree more.

Lucid and literary, A Short History of German Philosophy is a more than valuable contribution to that which its title suggests (and then some).

David Marx

Culture in Nazi Germany

Culture in Nazi Germany

By Michael H. Kater

Yale University Press – £11.99

[…] black shirts, shotguns, and wide-hipped maternal fecundity.

The flag-waving poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti combined political and cultural aspirations on the platform of the Futurist movement, which became part of Mussolini’s evolving ideology. A formative element of this movement was a vision of modernity, symbolized by the interaction of machine-age inventions such as the airplane with day-to-day politics, which together signified youth, dynamics, violence, and a crass rejection of the Liberal age prior to World War I.

(‘Conclusion – Culture in Three Tyrannies’).

As we well know, culture subliminally seeps into society in such a way as can be both breathtaking and horribly frightening. Fraught and indebted with an influence as to beguile a populace into the most rigged, yet random of behavioural patterns, culture may well stand at the very vanguard of politics.

Whether it’s a modern day red bus with blatant lies scrawled along its side, a media veritably anchored in an ideology of scapegoatism, or indeed, the inexorable current coverage of the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The latter of which is surely the most perfect diversionary tactic to draw everyone’s lucid thinking away from unfolding events in Northern Ireland.

All three examples of which are an equally perfect reflection of what the author, Michael H. Kater, has written in this wholly superlative book. Apart from enlightening the reader as to how Adolf Hitler managed to truly manipulate Nazi Germany into an intolerable regime – intent on nothing other than division and death – its six chapters shed a most thorough light on the degree to which the choreography of culture can have a profoundly destructive influence over a population.

Such was definitely the case in Germany during the thirties, and such invariably appears to (unfortunately) be the case with regards what is currently taking place throughout the United Kingdom: ‘’[…] nominal correctness rendered them not less, but more dangerous, because they could do much evil under the guise of legality’’ (‘Deconstructing Modernism’).

To refer to Culture in Nazi Germany as unbelievably well researched, thoroughly well written and idiosyncratically ironic, would be a vast understatement.

What’s more, it almost beggars belief as to just how relative its subject matter is.

Even populism is adhered to in the second chapter, ‘Pre-War Nazi Culture’ where Kater writes: ‘’’’Hitler’s personalized form of rule invited radical initiatives from below and offered such initiatives backing, so long as they were in line with his broadly defined goals. This promoted ferocious competition at all levels of the regime, among competing agencies, and among individuals within those agencies. In the Darwinist jungle of the Third Reich, the way to power and advancement was through anticipating the ‘Fuhrer will,’ and, without waiting for directives, taking initiatives to promote what were presumed to be Hitler’s aims and wishes.’’ In such a personalized system of governance geared teleologically to Hitler, the one who had the most guaranteed and most direct access to the Fuhrer would succeed most with his goals.’’

Hmm, who does this remind one of?

These 340 pages (excluding Preface, Notes, Archival Sources, Bibliography and Index) make for an altogether astonishing read in relation to its depth and clarity.

Even if it is a stark reminder that: ‘’In the end, what the Nazis viewed as a winning situation for the Third Reich turned out to be, by all accounts, a deplorable loss for the civilized world.’’

David Marx

Spinoza – Basic Concepts

Spinoza – Basic Concepts

Edited by Andre Santos Campos

Imprint-Academic – £40.00

If it is the external world that is holding us hostage, it is the internal world that will set us free.

(‘Virtue and Freedom’)

Behind the views that Spinoza was either afraid of the multitude or sanguine about their possible power lies the question of democracy. If Spinoza loved the multitude, then his championing of democracy is clear. If Spinoza detested and feared the multitude, then he cannot be the kind of democrat that he claims. These questions are intertwined. Spinoza’s changing view of the multitude reflects his changing view of democracy and what it requires to succeed.

(‘Multitude’)

The first of the above two quotes is beyond spot on; although it does need to be said that most people, for whatever reason, invariably seek solace from the external world. Maybe because it is easier to grasp, quintessentially apparent or obvious; and in most instances, more immediate. Although not necessarily more fulfilling.

Hence the runaway, diversionary fog that so plights modern society.

Everything from designer labels to drug-abuse, McDonald’s to a moral redundancy which appears increasingly endemic throughout much of the western world.

One need look no further than the mere fact that seventy-four million Americans voted for former President, Donald Trump, in the 2020 Election. Or, a little closer to home, the (other deplorable) fact that perpetual liar, Boris Johnson, won the British election of 2019 with a resounding landslide.

There again, populism and morality do make for a rather inflammatory cocktail, which, throughout the 176 pages (excluding Introduction, Bibliography and Index) of Spinoza – Basic Concepts, is made cohesively clear, time and again: ‘’If it is out myopic localism that has placed the stranglehold of our immediate world upon us, then it is the rational operations of the mind in reconfiguring our experience in terms of the infinity of nature that will set us free. So it is reason, the intellect, which becomes our salvation for it can resolve both the passivity and localism that drive our ‘servitude’ as Spinoza understands it (‘Virtue and Freedom’).

Admittedly, the above, written by Heidi M. Ravven, is one of the more easily readable chapters of what can only be described as an exceedingly dense and altogether difficult book to read. Each of its fifteen chapters do take intrinsic negotiation.

There again, we are talking about one of ‘’the most pivotal thinkers in the history of philosophy,’’ which warrants both patience and a continuation of the immediate above: ‘’We can discover the true explanations for things, for self and world, in actively retracing the causes of our singular experiences, as well as of our historical worlds, as product of natural causes in infinity, that is, in terms of bodies or fields of scientific explanation. And we can be released, in the same way and at the same time, from the ongoing pain and anxiety that the death grip of the local milieu – its institutions, rules, incentives and disincentives – exert upon our emotions and also released from the choke-hold it has upon our agency.’’

Again, not the easiest book to read, but ultimately rewarding nevertheless.

David Marx

Englishness

Englishness –

The Political Force Transforming Britain

By Ailsa Henderson & Richard Wyn Jones

Oxford University Press – £30.00

It is not difficult to find the view that England, formerly the land of deference, order, tradition, and squeamish aversion to national excess, has somehow been transformed into a land of right-wing, racist, past-obsessed misanthropes, hellbent on pulling the UK out of a successful economic and political union to satisfy some sort of imperial wanderlust […]. All of this might suggest that we are currently bearing witness to the emergence of a militant Englishness that is irredeemably reactionary.

(‘The English World View’)

The results show that English identifiers are more likely to cite sacrifices in world wars, the countryside, and the Queen, whereas British identifiers are more likely to be proud of openness to other cultures and faiths, as well as shared institutions such as the NHS.

(‘On Englishness and Britishness’)

A mere twelve weeks into the appalling disaster that is Brexit, and it does seem that a menagerie of outmoded and utterly misguided morons are now beginning to feel the economic heat. No surprises there of course, as to varying degrees, a country’s well-being has always invariably been anchored to that of its GDP.

Hence the term, ‘it’s the economy stupid.’

And the UK’s economy has taken such an astronomic nose-dive since January 1st, that even the most the selfish of myopic, racist bigots, are now beginning to realise that they may well have made a terrible, terrible mistake in voting to leave the European Union in 2016.

And lest we remind ourselves that this is just the beginning.

The beginning of what many consider to be an exceedingly bleak and catastrophic period in British cultural and economic history; for which we have the appalling likes of Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and Nigel Farage to systematically thank.

Not that the country was not forewarned mind, as this politically grounded and most meticulous of well-researched books wholly substantiates throughout its 215 pages (excluding List of Figures, List of Tables, Bibliography and Index). Indeed, Englishness – The Political Force Transforming Britain is remarkably coherent, factual and on occasion, severely to the point: If ‘Who will speak for England?’ was probably the best-known Leave supporting headline, then the highest-profile and best-known Leave campaign slogan was, with a shadow of a doubt, ‘Take back control.’ Apparently devised by Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of the officially designated Vote Leave campaign, ‘Take back control’ was pitch perfect. It managed to span the two key themes of the Leave campaign – namely, sovereignty and immigration – doing so in a way that evoked a sense of national history that resonates particularly strongly with those who identify as English. Restoring the ‘sovereignty of parliament’ and restoring the state’s borders in order to stop ‘uncontrolled’ immigration: these are both tropes whose undoubted power resides in a quintessentially English nostalgia for a glorious past in which the monarch in parliament was sovereign and in which the United Kingdom was more ethnically homogenous.’’

One cannot help but wonder – especially with food banks on the increase and the cleavage betwixt the haves and have-not growing exponentially – whether or not ‘‘sovereignty of parliament’’ will eventually begin to count for very little.

If not (almost) nothing at all.

That said, both authors Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones emphatically state that: ‘’Englishness is here and here to stay’’ (‘On Englishness and Britishness’).

Hmm, are we to take this as suave benevolence? Or a solace or sorts?

Apart from the fact that there may be one or two many tables and graphs depicting facts and figures and yet more facts and figures, Englishness makes for vitally important, if not compulsive reading.

David Marx