Category Archives: Bob Dylan

Trouble In Mind

Trouble-In-MindCover-Clinton-Heylin

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

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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

hoskyns

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

Dylan

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

Dylan Goes Electric

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Dylan Goes Electric
Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties
By Elijah Wald
Dey St/Harper Collins – £16.99

          […] an early theorist of what would become known as multiculturalism, the           ideal of the melting pot was virtuously egalitarian but in practice meant                 boiling the distinctive qualities of myriad ethnic cultures down ”into a                     tasteless, colourless fluid of uniformity… the American culture of the cheap           newspaper, the movies, the popular song, the ubiquitous automobile.” Or,            most obviously in the early 1960s, television, where colournessness and                  uniformity were explicitly enforced by blacklisting and racial segregation.

         Sometimes he lapses into a scrawny Presleyan growl, and at its very best,                his voice sounds as if it were drifting over the walls of a tuberculosis                        sanitarium – but that’s part of the charm.

Indeed, it is part of the charm; but with the appalling terrorist attack which took place in Paris on Friday evening – that has since been rightly reverberating around the entire planet – it could well be argued that we need the gut-wrenchingly, honest, humanistic lyrical likes of Bob Dylan now, more than we ever have. As not from the likes of Sam Smith, Taylor Swift or literally anyone else, are we ever going to hear such prophetic words as: ”If God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war.”

If, he’s on our side, that is.

But futile murder and mayhem aside, here’s another idiosyncratically interesting book on Dylan called Dylan Goes Electric, which traverses the many trajectorial arguments of his infamous first electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25,1965.

The key word here is of course, ”Folk,” although with the benefit of informative hindsight and this meticulously well researched, altogether marvelous book, the words brave and innovative suffice equally as well.

For instance, in the book’s Introduction, author Elijah Wald immediately states his case by writing: ”Dylan at Newport is remembered as a pioneering artist defying the rules and damn the consequences. Supporters of new musical trends ever since – punk, rap, hip-hop, electronica – have compared their critics to the dull folkies who didn’t understand the times were a-changing, and a complex choice by a complex artist in a complex time became a parable: the prophet of the new era going his own way despite the jeering rejection of his old fans.”

That the Wald writes with such an incisive, yet relative ease so very early on, wholeheartedly invites the reader to delve ever deeper, ever further; replete with inadvertent haste.

Or perhaps that should read, inadvertent pace?

”He challenged the establishment: ”Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” He defined his own transformation: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” He drew a line between himself and those who tried to claim him: ”I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants me to be just like them.” And he warned those wary of following new paths: ”He not busy being born is busy dying.”

Lest it be said, Wald has throughout these 309 pages (excluding Notes and Bibliography), clearly written on and about a subject he loves and adores.

In fact, amid parts of the book’s third chapter, ‘New York Town,’ he goes so far as to semi-dissect said era, by way of what folk music actually meant to Bob Dylan, as well as the day and the book’s other prime protagonist, Pete Seeger: ”For Dylan, as for Pete Seeger, the attraction of folk music was that it was steeped in reality, in history, in profound experiences, ancient myths, and enduring dreams. It was not a particular sound or genre; it was a way of understanding the world and rooting the present in the past. As he later reflected, thinking back on that time: ”Folk songs were the way I explored the universe, they were pictures and the pictures were worth more than anything I could say… It wasn’t that I was anti-popular culture or anything… I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick… What I was into was the traditional stuff with a capital T and it was as far away from the mondo-teeno scene as you could get.”

The latter in particular, exponentially explains why Dylan went on to strike such a colossal difference with so many people, not to mention segments of society. And why he went on to ”play all the folk songs with a rock’n’roll attitude.”

When you (honestly) think about it, it’s probably why you’re reading this here review.

If there’s any criticism to be made of these eleven fine chapters, it’s that there may in parts, be a little too much written about Pete Seeger (page 121 especially). Yet, with the overall feel of Dylan Goes Electric draped in a writing that can only be described as overtly and musically political, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dylan himself weren’t a tad reflective upon perhaps reading parts of the book – the following in particular:

”The festival programme was not simply a Machiavellian gambit in a Dylan-centric chess game, but Peter Yarrow notes that ”there was a camaraderie and even a complicity of sorts between Robert Shelton and Albert Grossman,” and in this period the writer felt personally responsible for much of Dylan’s success and embraced the singer’s work as a vessel for his own aesthetic and professional missions. He was a committed crusader for authentic folk music and progressive politics, and Dylan exemplified both. Like Guthrie, Dylan was a personification of progressive traditionalism, a popular wordsmith whose songs outshone his personal charisma and whose rough voice and neo-ethnic style would inevitably limit his appeal and keep him out of the pop mainstream.”

David Marx

Bob Dylan New York

Bob_Dylan_New_York

Bob Dylan New York
By June Skinner Sawyers
Roaring Forties Press- $14.95  £10.99

‘’New York in the early 1960s was perched on the precipice of change, moving from one era – the supposed ‘’innocence’’ of the Eisenhower years – to another – the dynamic but short-lived excitement of the Kennedy years. Indeed, the relatively short span between Eisenhower’s election in 1952 and the arrival of the Beatles in America in 1964 ushered in a decade or so of social change that shook American society to its very core on many levels: politically, socially, and economically. From peaceful civil rights demonstrations in the streets to racially tinged riots, the 1960s started with a gentle whimper and ended with an explosive bang.’’

Equally perched upon a wave of (said) unstoppable, almost miasmic, social-sea of change, was Bob Dylan’s arrival in New York City during the winter of 1961. It proved to be as musically and as socially explosive, as that of the decade itself. And to say he nurtured, bequeathed, radicalised and embraced the city with as much guts and gusto as just one singer-songwriter was capable, might be considered something of a discerning understatement.

The mere fact there’s a book dedicated to this very subject alone, underlines the unquestionable value and idiosyncratic importance that such an understatement might bestow.

Furthermore, this (partially) explains why it might be a good idea to read and fully contemplate June Skinner Sawyers’ Bob Dylan New York, wherein chapter eight’s ‘Thief of Thoughts,’ she reiterates the simple fact that: ‘’Dylan could have reinvented himself anywhere. But he didn’t go just anywhere. He went somewhere. He deliberately chose New York because New York, more than any other city or town, was his point of reference while growing up in Minnesota […]. ‘’There was nowhere else he could have gone to become Bob Dylan,’’ echoes music critic Anthony DeCurtis. ‘’It is hard to imagine where else he could have gone given what his aspirations were.’’’’

Even the word ‘aspirations,’ is a little lightweight, especially given the profound effect that both the city and the artist were to eventually have on one another. As such, it’s quite surprising that a book on the subject of Dylan and New York wasn’t written years ago; so all the more reason to embrace this one.

As a regular columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Sawyers is evidently just as much a Dylan fan as she is a formidable student. Both aspects of which are liberally peppered throughout what can only be described as yet another inviting and interesting book on the greatest songwriter this side of Lennon and McCartney.

David Marx

The Lives of Bob Dylan

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Once Upon A Time – The Lives Of Bob Dylan
By Ian Bell
Mainstream Publishing – £20.00

I’ve read and reviewed a number of books on Bob Dylan, and what I really like about Ian Bell’s Once Upon A Time – The Lives of Bob Dylan is its non-sycophantic, yet exceedingly well versed and highly researched, kick-in-the-bollocks analysis.

In other words, the author isn’t afraid of coming clean where perhaps his subject might. That’s not to say Dylan has anything to hide – far from it. For if any sublime artist, and there aren’t many, has had their entire adult/working life devoured every which way, it’s surely Sir Bob. With the possible exceptions of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles, surely no one has ever been so scrutinized, so analysed (and some might say patronised); so questioned, so discussed; so second (not to mention third, fourth and fifth) guessed as yer man Bob.

Yet still the books keep coming.

Still the hyper-evaluation is wrought with an individualistic need to be heard, read, developed and believed – depending on viewpoint and of course, fandom. Which, on far too many an occasion, is surely way too dressed up and random to be taken seriously – although such is most definitely not the case here.

Bell is obviously a fan. But he’s also a critic, and an excellent one at that. In the chapter ‘I Think I’ll Call It America’ for instance, he scathingly examines one of Dylan’s most semi-cryptic and controversial songs ever written, ‘Ballad In Plain D.’ And he does so in such an astute way, that it leaves many of his peers both vacuously pontificating as well as aimlessly wandering around in the gutless wilderness: ‘’Suze Rotolo believed it too. Though she could no longer tolerate the man, she did not once question his genius. That was no doubt part of the intractable problem. Fame, the cult of ‘Bob Dylan,’ was destroying their relationship as surely as his near-addiction to infidelity. All that remained was to put this love affair out of its misery. Dylan, deservedly, lost his self-respect in the process. The final scenes were ugly. They earned a song that was uglier still, cheap, nasty – you could call this poetry’s revenge – an abysmal piece of self-indulgence.’’

Where else might you stumble across, let alone read, such caustic, controversial criticism – especially at this late stage in Dylan’s career? Not many places I’d have thought.

Three paragraphs on (among others), the author continues along the same theme – only from Dylan’s perspective – substantiates his penchant for considered argument: ‘’Two decades later he had the good grace to regret ‘Ballad In Plain D,’ telling Bill Flanagan, ‘I look back and say ‘’I must have been a real schmuck to write that.’’ I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I’ve written, maybe I could have left that alone.’’

Throughout Once Upon A Time, Bell illuminates an area of the Minnesota Bard’s work, persona and mindset, that is of an entirely different persuasion than most. Thus ensuring its 563 pages are as much an enjoyable read, as they are both enlightening and refreshing

Earlier in the book, the writer effortlessly sheds his own take on Dylan the carefree, idiosyncratic, psychological tough-nut. He, who if Bell is to be believed, doesn’t really have a fleeting care in the world: ‘’To this day there is something dreamlike about his long career. He likes (or needs) to be elusive, but that fact doesn’t explain much. Wounded former friends, dropped like litter down the years, tend not to offer glowing character references. They say – and they have been saying it since the early 1960s – that he doesn’t give a damn. That doesn’t seem relevant either. If artists were to be disqualified from the cultural steeplechase on the grounds of obnoxious behaviour, few would make the starting line. That’s probably why nature’s groupies advance the faintly preposterous idea that a true creator is obliged – the Rimbaud thing again – to be a cold-hearted son of a bitch. Geniuses: what can you do?’’

Indeed, what can you do? Can’t live without ‘em, but at least we don’t have to live with ‘em. Instead, we can take and we can glean arbitrarily, at will, at any time of day or night. We can merely dip into whatever it is we want from our self-chosen geniuses – and let’s not mistake ourselves here, Dylan is a genius in every possible connotation of the word – without having to take any egotistical, excess, gobshite like behaviour along the way. We are forever entitled to thoroughly wallow within the pristine, beauty (of the poetry and the melody) of say ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ without having to resort to any form of sacrosanct, artistic wank or ransom.

It’s ours, whenever we want: for all the taking, all the healing, all the enjoying, all the whatever.

If however, you want to delve behind the veil and find out more behind what makes someone like Bob Dylan tick, then this is most definitely a book you should consider purchasing. You absolutely won’t regret it.

David Marx