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-Changin’)

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

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