Why Dylan Matters

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Why Dylan Matters
By Richard F. Thomas
William Collins – 12.99

Immature poets borrow, mature poets steal.

               T. S. Eliot

The academics, they ought to know. I’m not really qualified. I don’t have any opinion.

               Bob Dylan

Two days ago, the ever mercurial Bob Dylan will turn seventy-seven.
Now I don’t know about you, but most seventy-seven year old people I know, or have known, aren’t like Bob Dylan.
A man forever searching.
Discovering.
Forever on some sort of quest to find out.
To find out what exactly, is beyond any form of what he’d no doubt consider as claustrophobic clarification. There again, any remote form of clarification in the hands of Dylan is akin to the utmost of artistic denial.
Which is just one reason why Dylan matters.
And there are, needless to say, many, many others.

The songwriter’s endemic evolution alone ought to surely be cast as one of them – if not one of the most unwittingly profound – as the George Martin Lane professor of the Classics at Harvard University, Richard F. Thomas, writes in this informative book’s second chapter, ‘Together Through Life’: ”And so it has continued with Dylan’s constant evolution through the decades, with some fans disembarking and others coming back onboard, and newer, younger ones signing up for the first time. It is an essential part of Dylan’s genius that he is constantly evolving as an artist. This is not true of the artists of similar longevity, say Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, or Bruce Springsteen. Inevitably that constant evolvement creates periods of experimentation and exploration, some less successful than others, but always moving restlessly toward something, and with the music of the last twenty years now having reached, and sustained, a third classic period.”

It’s as if Dylan has enjoyed a number of very varying musical careers; the very first of which, his astonishing sixties output, fundamentally sealed his artistic fate.

A fate, which, when compared with sixties cohorts, The Rolling Stones for instance, exemplifies evolution as it truly ought to be (but more often than not, isn’t). Reason being, The Stones last terrific album was released well over forty years ago, whereas Dylan’s last magnificent album was released as recent as 2012 (The Tempest).
Might this be another reason why Dylan matters?

As already mentioned, Dylan matters for a great many reasons – far too many to list and address in this review.

Why Dylan Matters however, comes from an entirely different perspective, essentially that of the Classics, as Thomas makes clear: ”For the past forty years, as a Classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of these ancient poets. He is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today, and incapable of being contained by time or place. That’s why Dylan matters to me, and that’s what this book is about.”

By way of comparative relation, these nine chapters, along with the book’s Conclusion (‘Speechless in Stockholm’), do much to substantiate the author’s thinking. There again, like Ovid, Homer and indeed Virgil himself: ”The art of Bob Dylan, no less than any other works produced by the human mind in its most creative manifestation, can be put to work in serving and preserving the humanities […] through a genius that captures the essence of what it means to be human.”

Analytical, forthright and overtly persuasive, Richard F. Thomas has herein written a book that’s a veritable joy to both read and behold – even if just to be reminded of the following: ”Songs were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic…I didn’t know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was. Nobody bothered with that. If you told the truth that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well that’s still well and good. Folk songs taught me that.

David Marx

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