Category Archives: Bob Dylan

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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The Nobel Lecture

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The Nobel Lecture
By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster – £9.99

It ought to go without much saying or convincing, that Bob Dylan never really ceases to both surprise and confound.

That he has always subscribed to the following of his own star, is one thing. That he has always continued to do so by fundamentally, not to mention inexorably and totally doing his own thing – regardless of what anyone else thinks, wants or believes – is surely just one of the facets which accounts for his undeniable genius and longevity.

Lets face it, the current US President Donald Trump, is essentially doing his own thing; but he’s an utterly vile and soulless, talentless, racist idiot of the first degree. Reason I mention this is because there does have to come a point where doing one’s own thing is, and has to be accounted for – especially within the bigger picture. And so far as the bigger picture is concerned, Dylan has been around long enough to idiosyncratically garner and warrant far more chutzpah induced respect, than say the likes of Trump, who’s a similar age, could ever muster in another hundred thousand lifetimes.

Moreover, it’s no surprise Dylan hardly gave too much of his own game away during his (eventual) acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 (in Stockholm, Sweden): ”When I received the Nobel Prize for literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.”

The Nobel Lecture is a cute and altogether concise little book of a mere 23 pages, which captures Dylan’s speech in its entirety; wherein he regales his admiration for Buddy Holly and Leadbelly, along with three books of clearly profound and major influence: Moby-Dick, The Odyssey and All Quiet On The Western Front.

All three of which he touches on in such a way as only Dylan can, although it is the latter, which to my mind at least, lends a whole lot of gravitas to a great deal of his early work in particular: ”Who knows how long this mess will go on? Warfare has no limits. You’re being annihilated, and that leg of yours is bleeding too much. You killed a man yesterday, and you spoke to his corpse. You told him after this is over, you’ll spend the rest of your life looking after his family. Who’s profiting here? The leaders and the generals gain fame, and many others profit financially. But you’re doing the dirty work. One of your comrades says, ”Wait a minute, where are you going?” And you say, ”Leave me alone, I’ll be back in a minute.” Then you walk out into the woods of death hunting for a piece of sausage. You can’t see how anybody in civilian life has any kind of purpose at all. All their worries, all their desires – you can’t comprehend it.”

Indeed, it is exceedingly hard to comprehend.
Just as it is almost impossible to come to terms with what’s currently going on in the US and UK today. That said, The Nobel Lecture does a terrific job in shedding a tiny shred of light upon one of the most pertinent, inquisitive and brilliant minds the world has ever known.

It it any wonder Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature?

David Marx

Light Come Shining

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Light Come Shining
The Transformations of Bob Dylan
By Andrew McCarron
Oxford University Press – £14.49

The minute you try to grab hold of Dylan, he’s no longer where he was. He’s like a flame: If you try to hold him in your hand you’ll surely get burned. Dylan’s life of change and constant disappearances and constant transformations makes you yearn to hold him, and to nail him down.

         (‘Masked and Anonymous’)

To say that Bob Dylan has always been obsessed with death and disintegration (both personal and global) would be an understatement.

          (‘World Gone Wrong’)

I’ve published a number of Bob Dylan book reviews on this site – he even has his own section – but I have to say, this is one of the most compelling and captivating books on the artist I’ve read in quite a while. Apart from the fact that the author, Andrew McCarron, delves right into the psychological nitty-gritty of what the sub-title suggests nigh immediately, he bequeaths the reader with numerous substantial examples throughout.

In so doing, he manages to shed quintessentially quizzical light on a mesmerising subject that remains intrinsically restless to say the least.

And it is this inexorable restlessness, this transient manoeuvre of almost obsessive musicality by one of the finest living artists on the planet today, which is the (most readable) bedrock of Light Come Shining – The Transformations of Bob Dylan.

Even the book’s Prologue (‘A Case for this Psychobiography’) opens with a most apt quote from T.S. Eliot:

And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered

before going on to continue with a quotation from the personality psychologist, Henry Murray: ”[…] we are all in some respects like all other people, like some other people, and like no other people (Murray & Kluckhohn, 1953). Psychobiography tackles this last piece, the part of a person that’s unique and that may resist easy intelligibility. It asks why someone is the way he or she is – then draws on psychological theory and experimental research to address the question.”

Indeed, the numerous morph-like transformations of Bob Dylan are addressed relentlessly throughout these six, jam-packed, and very intelligently written, beguiling chapters.

As Michael J. Gilmour, author of The Gospel According to Bob Dylan: The Old, Old Story for Modern Times has since written: ”Light Come Shining is an intriguing complement to the biographical works of Robert Shelton, Clinton Heylin, and Howard Souness. The aim of McCarron’s psycho-biography is a glimpse into Dylan’s ‘inner life,’ and is a project sure to generate reactions among fans and academics alike. Reconstructing the artist from the art is always a perilous task but even those wary of such efforts will find much here to enjoy.”

‘Enjoy,’ is suffice to say, an exceedingly good descriptive word to use in relation to Light Come Shining. It might partially explain why I read it in a mere two sittings. For in wanting to find-out as it were, I inadvertently deciphered more and more and erm, more, without really knowing I was doing so.

So much so, that by the book’s end on page 193, I found myself beholding many a proclamation according to ye Minnesota Bard of open-ended discovery and redemption.
Not to mention a whole lot more besides.

An altogether terrific book.

David Marx

Trouble In Mind

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Trouble In Mind
Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years – What Really Happened.
By Clinton Heylin
Route – £16.99

Gospel music is about the love of God. And commercial music is about the love of sex.

When people don’t get threatened and challenged…in some kind of way, they don’t get confronted, never have to make decisions, they never take a stand, they never grow. [Instead they] live their lives in a fish-tank, stay in the same old scene forever, die and never get a break or a chance to say goodbye. I have views contrary to all that. I think that this world is just a passing-through place and that the dead have eyes and that even the unborn can see, and I don’t care who knows it. [You] know, I can go off on tangents.

Regardless of wherever Bob Dylan happens to be; or wherever he’s been throughout his packed, fraught, colourful, inspired, confrontational, mesmerising and sometimes fractious career, there have always, always been interesting and highly compelling words bouncing around. Whether bouncing around his head, the vicinity, his latest recording(s) or within the all-round, general ether of Bob Dylan.

The above two quotes alone, are surely enough to trigger much debate amid part-time listeners as well as acute aficionados of the artist.

After all, is gospel music really about the love of God? Some would contest that gospel music is more about the love of life, as seen through the prism of God. And while a lot of (today’s) commercial music may indeed hinge upon the love of sex, such isn’t necessarily, always the case. The second quote meanwhile, is more dense than a book on the history of Chinese algebra. Just the last line (”[You] know, I can go off on tangents.”), is capable of triggering a trajectory of colossal, cryptic thought – from the hilarious to the understated to satirical confrontation.

And hey, up until now, this is just two quotes I have been writing about!

The particular period of Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years – What Really Happened (the absolutely full-on religious stage of the late seventies and early eighties) is no exception to any other Dylan- whether past or present, in love or in pain; whether acoustic or electric, social or political.

To be sure, the songs Dylan wrote during his ”conversion to Evangelical Christianity,” are, as the author of this terrific book, Clinton Heylin, has since substantiated : ”[…] in person and in print, the consummate songwriter composed a body of work in the period 1979-81 which more than matches any commensurate era in his long and distinguished career – or, indeed, that of any other twentieth century popular artist.”

There again, the material in question, along with this truly exceptional publication, are about Dylan doing what he essentially does best: being himself; and who else to better assimilate and write about it, than Heylin? A fan, as well as perhaps the most knowledgable of writers on Dylan, who, according to The New York Times, is ”the only Dylanologist worth reading.”

Divided into three prime sections (‘Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody,’ Watered-Down Love’ and ‘Outro’) these fourteen chapters make for more than compelling reading, which, as the author makes clear: ”There is more new information in this book than there is in any book published about Bob Dylan, ever, mine included.”

This is not only inspiring to know, but something almost every Dylan fan (or fanatic) will want to clearly, as well as fully investigate.

After all: ”Everything passes, everything changes.”

David Marx

The Political Art of Bob Dylan

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The Political Art of Bob Dylan
Edited by David Boucher & Gary Browning
Imprint Academic – £14.95/$29.90

Everything he does is expression, eruption, explosion. This is the hottest crater of a volcanic epoch, spewing out the lava of its visions in unpredictable bursts with irresistible power, in the relentless swell of the inner fire.

His achievement in breathing new life into old art forms by the radical modification of form and content has inspired millions of people throughout the world and reminds us that art can still awaken a sense of resistance to the fatalistic surrender to the idea that there is no alternative to a ‘World Gone Wrong.’

                                                                        (‘Dylan’s Expressionist Period’)

Such is the case that Bob Dylan’s lyrical oeuvre is as equally grounded in ever changing fluidity as it is validity; and reading this most fascinating of books, re-alerts us to said oeuvre’s timely and altogether cohesive consistency. Indeed, The Political Art of Bob Dylan is something of a (political) reminder, as to how impatient and important so much of the songwriter’s work has been over the years and decades.

Not to mention intrinsically raw and close to the bone.

To quote the great Federicio Garcia Lorca, who is himself, quoted in the book’s final chapter ‘Images and Distorted Facts’: ”Poetry surrounds itself with brambles and fragments of broken glass so that the hands that reach out for it are cut and injured with love.”

Self-inflicted, yet cursed injury for thought perhaps, but when one’s work is examined within a complex sphere of the theoretical aesthetic, the sort of which encompasses the likes of Kant and Adorno, Collingwood and Lorca; one must invariably as well instinctively know one has arrived.

And for all intents and appreciative purposes, Dylan has continued to arrive, over and over if not over again.

For instance, one need only reflect upon how very little today’s United States has actually changed since the release of Dylan’s socially groundbreaking album, Highway 61 Revisited. An album, which, as Gary Browning substantiates in the book’s seventh chapter ‘Bob Dylan: (Post) Modern Times,’ more than told it as it needed to be told back then (and clearly still does now): ”It is an album that is a wholesale critique of the USA, its culture and values. The title track is a case in point. Highway 61, a highway running from North to South, is an image for the dead hand of the system, stretching throughout the USA. It is a metaphor for the power of the system; its linking and framing of America in the values sustained by corporate power […]. ‘The symbolic highway offers less potential for escape and more sense of cultural entrapment.’ The opening lines of the song ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ replay Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son at God’s command, just as in contemporary America the political fathers were sacrificing their sons in the Vietnam war. This slaughter of America’s sons is linked to an ineffectual welfare system, the straight-jacket of family values, and the commodification of everything, including nuclear war. Dylan recognises the systemic nature of the corruption and desolation in contemporary America. He does not offer an alternative social vision. He satirises mainstream society and in so doing implies an alternative, but individual vision.”

It is this very ”individual vision,” upon which a great seething plethora of Dylan books continue to be written and (quite often) devoured. In fact, another two new Dylan books are about to be published by Simon and Schuster at the end of this month: The Nobel Lecture and The Essential Interviews.

Although it does need to be said that what separates The Political Art of Bob Dylan from that of its competitors, is the degree to which is enriches our understanding of Dylan’s acute and very varied political work(s). A facet of the man which is on-going, never simple, yet fraught with a Burn Baby Burn like thinking. And Amen to that brother.

David Marx

 

Small Town Talk

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Small Town Talk
By Barney Hoskyns
Faber & Faber – £20.00

Let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to think of Woodstock without thinking of one of two things – Bob Dylan and/or the Woodstock Festival.

With the exception of Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and The Who’s performances (stunning, terrific all three), the latter has never really held much fascination for me – let alone any inspired sway. Regardless of the fact that the Woodstock Festival was responsible for having triggered many a menagerie of (oft dodgy) festivals in its wake.

In my book, Woodstock quintessentially means one thing, and one thing only: Bob Dylan. Admittedly, replete with a tremendous trajectory of varying off-shoots such as The Band, Van Morrison and Graham Parker to name but three.
Yet, Woodstock still remains Dylan, who, as the one thing/person/artist/whatever, has ceaselessly peaked my interest in the area – which in turn, drew me to Barney Hoskyns’ Small Town Talk.

That Hoskyns is a terrific writer, who has perhaps written the finest ever book on Tom Waits, Lowside Of The Road: A Life Of Tom Waits, further qualifies as a prime reason to read what is, a most colourful read.

From ‘Folk Songs of the Catskills’ to ‘Hundred-and-Forty Dollar Bash,’ to ‘Some Way Out of Here’ to ‘The Ballad of Todd and Albert,’ these eleven chapters (excluding a List of Illustrations, Prologue, Epilogue. Coda, a more than interesting section entitled ‘Take Your Pleasure: Twenty-Five Timeless Tracks, Acknowledgements, Bibliography, Notes and Index) are a superlative traipse through the endearingly rich tapestry of everything Woodstock has come to represent.

But if it’s a fix of Dylan you’re after, look no further than the fifth chapter, ‘Boy in the Bubble’ (among others), where, in relation to that most feisty of Dylan compadres, Bobby Neuwirth alone, Hoskyns informatively writes: ””It was a synergistic relationship. Dylan was not exactly a chameleon, but there was a number of people that he drew from.” Dylan himself would compare Neuwirth to Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road, writing in Chronicles that ”you had to brace yourself when you talked to him” and that he ”ripped and slashed and could make anybody uneasy […].” ”I could never figure out whether it was Dylan who’d copped Neuwirth’s style or vice versa,” wrote Al Aronowitz, one of their many victims. But Al Kooper, who go to know the duo the following year, was convinced that ”Neuwirth was actually the personality: he was the creator of the image and Dylan just jumped on it.”

That said, there really is, and perhaps clearly is, a whole lot more to Woodstock than that of the most brazen Bard of Minnesota; as is somewhat swiftly pointed out by Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue in the book’s Prologue (which benefits from the most Van Morrison of influenced titles, ‘Into The Mystic’): ”Woodstock has a way of down-shifting you from high gears into neutral. It’s not a coincidence that it is a strange attractor for the Tibetans and the Zen people. The Buddhists would have a word for ‘neutral’ – the void. All of that is there, from ages earlier than Dylan. I don’t want to get too mystical about it, but there’s more to Woodstock than it being a cute little town in the mountains where Bob had a place and some funny things happened to The Band on the way to the Forum. It is that place, at least to me – the creeks and the winding roads and the pitch-black nights – but all of that is on the inside. It’s the mountains of the minds.”

”The mountains of the mind,” now there’s a thought!

Throughout Small Town Talk, Hoskyns does indeed recreate Woodstock’s confined community of (sometimes rather brilliant) dysfunctional musicians, opportunistic hippie capitalists, scheming wheeler-dealers and erstwhile freaks; all of whom are unsurprisingly dazed and intermittently confused by their own difficult quest for spiritual truth.

So naturally, depending on point of view, this is a book that is idiosyncratic and informative in equal measure. Entertaining too.

David Marx

Dylan’s Vision of Sin

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Dylan’s Vision of Sin
By Christopher Ricks
Canongate – £14.99

”It ain’t the melodies that’re important, it’s the words.”

Who else but Bob Dylan could profess to such an execution of open and honest thinking? Funny thing is though, Dylan’s melodies are in many instances, as equally memorable and powerful as his words.

Alas, to each his own, but whenever I hear the opening chords to say ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ or ‘Hurricane’ or any number of his songs, I am immediately transported unto another place before Dylan even popens his mouth. Might this be because I know what’s coming? Or might this be because of the sheer finesse and briliance of his musicality?

Either way, it just is; but betwixt said uncertainty/curiosity, there does lurk a hunger to delve ever further. That is, to investigate the initial kernel of what may have sparked whatever song it is I am listening to; which, given Dylan’s colossal catalogue, is no mean feat.

This may go someway into explaining why there are so many Bob Dylan books available. Books about Dylan himself, if not certain aspects of his nigh unstoppable writing. Books about his time spent in New York City, if not his religious endeavours.

In this instance, we have Christopher Ricks’s Dylan’s Vision of Sin, which, to all intents and poetic purposes, may be more justified than others. Depending on your point of view. According to The Sunday Times’ Bryan Appleyard: ”Everything Ricks has to say about Dylan is original. He is a critic who seems to be talking to you from within the work. He can turn the smallest niche in a poem into a vast cathedral of resonance and implication.”

”A vast cathedral of resonance and implication,” now there’s a description. Although this reviewer cannot help but agree with him!

Compartmenalized into three distinct sections (‘The Sins,’ The Virtues’ and ‘The Heavenly Graces’), each of this book’s sixteen chapters will make most followers of Dylan sit-up, read ever further and take note. Even if just momentarily. Even if they don’t agree. A facet of writing, which to my mind at least, can only be a good thing: ”[…] rhyme is itself one of the forms that metaphor may take, since rhyme is a perception of agreement and disagreement, of similitude and dissimilitude. Simultaneously, a spark. Long, long ago, Aristotle said in the Poetics that the greatest thing by far is to be master of metaphor, for it is upon our being able to learn from the perception of similitude and dissimilitude that human learning of all kinds depends. One form that mastery of metaphor may take is mastery of rhyme.”

This in itself, shows a quintessential depth of analysis that’ll no doubt trigger many a Dylan head into revisiting many a track of the artist’s work. One of the prime reasons being, much of the analysis herein comes from a whole different angle; which, apart from anything else, suggests a certain credo that is and remains refreshing to say the very least: ”I think it’s true that women in Dylan’s vicinity sometimes have as their mission being rhymed into submission, but that isn’t battering, it’s bantering. Still, the rhyming can be fierce. Take the force of the couplet in ‘Idiot Wind,’ ”Blowing like a circle round my skull/From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.””

Dylan’s Vision of Sin is a wonderfully written, inspired and more than compelling read. In the words of The Guardian’s Andrew Motion: ”The rewards are just as one would expect: a bracing attention to artfulness, a wonderful sensitivity to nuance, and a particularly brilliant sympathy with the purpose and effect of Dylan’s rhymes.”

David Marx