Bob Dylan In America

Bob Dylan In America

By Sean Wilentz

Bodley Head – £20.00

It’s as if the more one finds out about Bob Dylan, the more one is invariably intrigued to delve deeper. To find out more, to read yet closer still, to continue discovering ad infinitum; although if truth were known, there really is no end to be either had or in sight. And forever shall it be thus.

Or so it seems.
Or, to quote the late, great, Kurt Vonnegut: ‘’and so it goes.’’

So it goes indeed: on and on and on. Until such time that the literary merry-go-round – upon which so many daringly, wearingly surmise, and continue to lure’n’procure a veritable plethora of dizzying informative heights to be unveiled – will ultimately cease from turning. Thus triggering the ultimately disappointed into aghast disbelief. Ultimately (and involuntarily) disappointed that is, by way of regularly returning to similar, serried, shorelines; which again, if truth or something calling itself the truth, were known, had never truly left the harbour – let alone horizon.

Luckily for us, Bob Dylan In America traverses such an array of uncharted waters; deliberately, and as such, definitively, that the varying depths discovered herein, really are quite something. As the title suggests, these 335 pages – excluding the excellent Selected Readings, Notes and Discography – are anchored within that of American myth, music and history, and to say that the author Sean Wilentz knows his stuff, is akin to saying Dylan knows a decent turn of phrase. This ought hardly be surprising considering he’s also the author of The Rise of American Democracy (for which he received the coveted Bancroft Prize), and more recently The Age of Reagan. He has also received a Deems Taylor Award for musical commentary and a Grammy nomination for his (seriously knowledgeable) liner notes to Bootleg Series, Vol 6: Bob Dylan, Live 1964: The Convert at Philharmonic Hall.

So all told, this was always destined to be a good, or at least, a rather special book on Bob Dylan – one in which a little faith could be placed, if not a whole lot of trust. Apart from a relative overview of American history in relation to Dylan (the chapters ‘Penetrating Aether: The Beat Generation and Allen Ginsberg’s America’ and ‘Many Martyrs Fell: ‘’Blind Willie McTell,’’ New York City, May 5, 1983’ in particular), not to mention musical background (‘Music for the Common Man: The Popular Front and Aaron Copland’s America’ and ‘Children of Paradise: The Rolling Thunder Revue, New Haven, Connecticut, November 13, 1975’), Wilentz bequeaths considered knowledge like candy. Some of which we may already know, but hey, one can never get too much of a good thing: ‘’Blonde on Blonde was, and remains, a gigantic peak in Dylan’s career. From more than a dozen angles, it describes basic, not always flattering, human desire and the inner movements of an individual being in the world. The lyric manuscripts from the Nashville sessions show Dylan working in a 1960s mode of what T. S. Eliot had called, regretfully, the dissociation of sensibility – cutting off discursive thought or wit from poetic value, substituting emotion for coherence.’’

Having always had something of a close proximity to that of his subject, Wilentz endeavours to share, rather than wantonly embrace spasms of braggadocio.This in itself warrants just some of the praise this book has generated (and there’s quite a bit), such as the following by Martin Scorsese: ‘’A panoramic vision of Bob Dylan, his music, his shifting place in American culture, from multiple angles. In fact, reading Sean Wilentz’ Bob Dylan In America is as thrilling and surprising as listening to a great Dylan song.’’

David Marx


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