Tag Archives: Blonde on Blonde

Bob Dylan – The Stories Behind The Songs 1962-1969

Bob Dylan 1962-1969

Bob Dylan –
The Stories Behind The Songs 1962-1969
By Andy Gill
Carlton Books – £9.99

No matter how much one reads on Bob Dylan, be it about the man himself, his extraordinary catalogue of work, or a fraught, critical assimilation of the two, it’s almost impossible to arrive at a satisfactory, let alone cathartic conclusion. There’s 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 and so colourful and so strewn with mayhem and madness, it’s night impossible to get a grip. The all
illusive answers are perhaps, blowing in the wind after all. Just like William Shakespeare before him (again, both the man and the myth), Dylan too, has comparable tomb of work that is riddled with more speculation than one can possibly contend with. But unlike William the Wordsmith, Dylan is still very much alive and kicking and touring and answerable to no one. Which 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 about him, of which Andy Gill’s Bob Dylan – The Stories Behind The Songs 1962-1969 is an acutely important one. Reason being, it’s short, it’s to the point but more importantly, it doesn’t ramble unto a plateau of fog induced, philosophical meandering (like so many I’ve read). 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’s a Dylan dictionary of songs in chronological album order, unto which the reader can briefly indulge by way of succinct analysis and clarification – 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 – Stories Behind the Songs 1962-1969 is an enlightening, as well as an entertaining read; which, given the brevity, the depth, and the importance of the subject matter, makes it a worthy addition to anyone’s (Dylan) library.

David Marx

Behind The Shades – The 20th Anniversary Edition

Behind The Shades
The 20th Anniversary Edition
By Clinton Heylin
Faber and Faber – £20.00

This 20th Anniversary Edition of Clinton Heylin’s Behind the Shades is a terrific, and at times, mesmerizing read; which ought hardly be surprising considering the author is recognised throughout much of the western world, as perhaps being the leading authority on Bob Dylan He was after all, co-founder of Wanted Man – the British magazine devoted to studying the songwriter’s life, times and work – while for a number for a years, he also edited the news section of its quarterly magazine, The Telegraph. He has also written two exceptionally comprehensive books on artist’s huge collection of work: Revolution in the Air (Vol. 1) and Still on the Road (Vol.2) both of which, really do stand alone amid the ever-increasing pantheon of publications on Dylan.

In other words, the author knows his subject.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clinton Heylin knows things about Bob that Dylan himself doesn’t even know. A conspirational intrigue that may partially explain why this book succeeds in taking the reader on a thought provoking and undeniably complex journey; a journey best described as Dylan’s vast, colourful and seemingly endless career.

Having just turned seventy, the artist still shows no sign of letting up or slowing down. He recently played shows in Vietnam and China for the first time in his career, both of which garnered as much praise as they did controversy. The latter of which is absolutely nothing new in a career crammed with some form of provocation and altercation.

He is after all, the archetypal song and dance man with something to say.

And boy, doesn’t he say it. With the exception of John Lennon, Dylan says it like no one else ever has. Nor is capable. Of Blood on the Tracks – a veritable masterpiece, my favourite ever Dylan recording and perhaps one of the finest albums ever released, Heylin writes (in the chapter ‘Spring Turns Slowly To Autumn’): ‘’Blood on the Tracks remains not only the central pivot of Dylan’s career but of the rock aesthetic itself. With this album, the man shifted axis. Ten years after he turned the rock & roll brand of pop into rock, a self-conscious, albeit populist, art form, he renewed its legitimacy as a form capable of containing the work of a mature artist. He also gave it a new self-consciousness, just as the linchpins of first-generation rock were coming to the end of their respective streaks of inspiration. The Rolling Stones would never top their four albums from Beggars Banquet through Exile on Main Street, 1968 through 1972; neither Lennon nor McCartney would come close to the quality of Revolver, The White Album, or Abbey Road; Pete Townshend was rock-operaed out after 1973’s Quadrophenia; even David Bowie had concluded his early seventies trilogy of consecutive rock classics.’’

Naturally, not everyone would agree with such sentiment, but Heylin’s words are rather hard to argue with. Depending on viewpoint, Dylan was, and to a degree, still is, somewhat relentless in relation to the quality control of his official recording output. And this from an artist, renowned for not ever wanting to record more than three takes of any particular song.

Moreover, the author goes on to substantiate the above when he writes: ‘’Only Dylan, whose mid-sixties canon was more daunting than all of the above, succeeded in producing an album that stoked up his genius quotient nearly ten years after he was thought to have left it by the roadside. And he had done it by reinventing his whole approach to language. Gone were the surrealistic turns of phrase on Blonde on Blonde, gone was the ‘wild mercury sound’ surrounding those mystical words. In their place was a uniformity of mood, a coherence of sound, and an unmistakable maturity to the voice – as if he had had to make Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning to assimilate those aspects of his voice into a stronger whole. He had never sung better.’’

Again, it’s difficult to disagree with what Heylin has to say here. For a start, the singer really hadn’t sung better. Even today, hearing Dylan sing ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ or ’Idiot Wind’ from said album, still transports me to a place way beyond the ether of artistic evaluation.

Suffice to say, there is so much more to read in Behind the Shades that is of equally candid and considered importance. It truth, it doesn’t get any better (nor captivating nor comprehensive) than this. This book is simply brilliant.

David Marx

The Cambridge Companion To Bob Dylan

The Cambridge Companion To Bob Dylan

Edited by Kevin J. H. Dettmar

Cambridge University Press

£14.99 (paperback) ISBN: 9780521714945

£45.00 (hardback) ISBN: 9780521886949

Like The Beatles, it’s hard to write about Bob Dylan without being in some sort of intrinsic awe. That many consider the sheer audacity of Dylan’s artistry and output as being revolutionary, has, to all intents and purposes, evolved into being the norm, rather than the exception. So no surprises there. But what I do find a bit surprising – and in turn, hopelessly exhilarating and entertaining – are the countless (solipsistic) claims and counter-claims placed upon him.

The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan being no exception.

What makes Dylan so important, and dare I repeat, exhilarating and entertaining, are the many, many sides to his personality. As Bernard Paturel is quoted as saying in the eleven page Introduction: ‘’There’s so many sides to Bob Dylan, he’s round.’’ It is this, along with his pleomorphic and at times, gut wrenching; kaleidoscopic and other times, awe-inspiring and imposing catalogue of songs, that account for the artist’s continuing validity.

Once again, with the exception of The Beatles, there’s no one comes remotely close to Dylan. And the writers herein know this all to well, as Kevin J. H. Dettmar continues in his Introduction: ‘’Dylan’s work is literary, I would want to agree, in the most fundamental of ways: his is a sensitivity, and a sensibility, that turns almost instinctively to the resources of literary language in order to manifest itself, ‘transmuting,’ as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus brashly proclaims, ‘the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.’’’

Divided into two sections (Part I Perspectives & Part II Landmark Albums), these seventeen essays investigate an array of colourful and salient Dylan terrain. From David Yaffe’s ‘Bob Dylan and the Anglo-American tradition’ to Barbara O’Dair’s ‘Bob Dylan and gender politics,’ to David R. Shumway’s ‘Bob Dylan as cultural icon’ to the eight writings on Landmark albums – each thoroughly investigate their subject with dexterity and authority.

For instance, in ‘Bob Dylan and the Academy,’ Lee Marshall writes: ‘’The intimacy and sense of longing generated by ‘Visions of Johanna’ is not merely the result of the instruments, however; it is also created by Dylan’s singing, and the fact that song lyrics are mediated by a performance is something regularly overlooked by those taking a literary approach to Dylan’s work. When we read a poem, we read it in our own voice, at our own speed. With a song, we have no such control; the singer controls the pace at which we hear a song and the voice in which we hear it. In consort with the music, the singer gives us clues as to, for example, whether the authorial voice is male or female, or whether the words are sincere or ironic, that are not available in written poems.’’

Much to his own amusement (I’m sure), volume after volume continues to be written on Bob Dylan – which, of itself, feeds off itself – and there appears to be no end in sight. But so far as a literary springboard from which to embark and learn is concerned, I’d wholeheartedly recommend this Cambridge Companion.

Not only is it a worthy insight for the novice, it’s a more than interesting ride for worldwide Dylanologists.

David Marx

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