Sunday, September 05, 2010

"...Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues..."

A few years ago my telephone rang one Sunday evening. It was my mom (in her eighties). She called to let me know that "my man" was on "Sixty Minutes". I turned my TV on in time to see Ed Bradley interview Bob Dylan.

Hard to explain how a black youth growing up in Cleveland, Ohio got hooked on Dylan. But I did -- and still am. When I played my Dylan albums on my mono record player back in the 60's, my mom would just smiled, shake her head and gently close my bedroom door. (GW)

Bringing It All Back Home

By Bruce Handy
New York Times
September 3, 2010

BOB DYLAN IN AMERICA By Sean Wilentz Illustrated. 390 pp. Doubleday. $28.95

Whoever it was in 1969 who named the very first Bob Dylan bootleg album “Great White Wonder” may have had a mischievous streak. There are any number of ways you can interpret the title — most boringly, the cover was blank, like the Beatles’ “White Album” — but I like to see a sly allusion to “Moby-Dick.” In the seven years since the release of his first commercial record, Dylan had become the white whale of 20th-century popular song, a wild, unconquerable and often baffling force of musical nature who drove fans and critics Ahab-mad in their efforts to spear him, lash him to the hull and render him merely comprehensible.
The subsequent ups and downs of his career — the initially confounding “Self Portrait” album in 1970, the rebirth in the mid-1970s with “Blood on the Tracks,” the literal rebirth (at least, presumably, in Dylan’s eyes) of his evangelical period, the 1980s slump, the third rebirth in the 1990s and 2000s as the grand old omnivore of American vernacular music, last year’s croaky Christmas album — while not as fetishized as his landmark 1960s peaks, have made him an even more alluring, ever more elusive target. Thus, Books in Print lists more than 150 distinct titles on the subject, a library woozy with humid overstatement and baby boomer mythology. (“Bob Dylan seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point,” or thus spake Greil Marcus.) That’s one trap for the Dylanologist. Another is a fondness for disappearing down rabbit holes in search of tasty minutiae. (If you have been toying with the idea of writing a book that “itemizes Bob Dylan’s copyright registrations and copyright-related documents,” I’m afraid to report that it’s been done.) The only pop performer who has had as protean, as chameleon­like, as resonant a career is arguably Madonna, who makes up in costume changes what she lacks in lyrical acuity; but few take her seriously enough to write really poorly about her, at least among the straight white males who still make up the rock intelligentsia. Fashion writers and Camille Paglia are something else.
Sean Wilentz is an old Dylan hand, having contributed Grammy-nominated liner notes to Dylan’s official “Bootleg Series” release of his 1964 concert at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, which Wilentz attended as a 13-year-old. He has also served as the unofficial “historian-in-­residence” at (His day job is being a history professor at Princeton and publishing books on subjects like Andrew Jackson.) Among those who write regularly about Dylan, Wilentz possesses the rare virtues of modesty, nuance and lucidity, and for that he should be celebrated and treasured. If I may extend the “Moby-Dick” metaphor just a little here (I know Melville’s battered old blubber trove is not the freshest-smelling symbol in American letters), Wilentz is a whale watcher rather than a whale hunter. He is content to observe rather than possess, and his new book, “Bob Dylan in Ameri­ca,” makes no pretense at being comprehensive. Rather, it’s a kind of critical biography that flits among various high points of Dylan’s career — both like and unlike the singer’s own memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One,” which also touched down hither and yon but with the random perversity of a tornado, skipping over “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde” while plowing into “Oh Mercy” (no one’s favorite Dylan album, though his was the most incisive and dramatic account of record-making I’ve ever read).
There’s more obvious method in Wilentz’s flitting, though the book’s structure was dictated by its being cobbled together in part from previously published essays. As the title suggests, he aims to situate Dylan in a continuum of American music, literature, religion and politics, dating back decades if not centuries. “What do those tangled influences tell us about America?” Wilentz wonders. “What do they tell us about Bob Dylan? What does America tell us about Bob Dylan — and what does Dylan’s work tell us about America?” If those chapter-review questions make your heart sink, don’t worry: Professor Wilentz hasn’t produced a textbook. Rather, he offers “hints and provocations, written in the spirit that holds hints, diffused clues and indirections as the most we can look forward to before returning to the work itself — to Dylan’s work.”
That reads coy, or even fey, but it gets at what I admire about this book. Wilentz never loses sight of two essential truths about Dylan: one, Dylan almost always speaks best for himself, and usually means precisely what he says (even when he’s contradicting himself, the sign of an honest man, or a lunatic — and an artist is kind of both); and two, even if Dylan is not really as elusive as he’s cracked up to be, there are questions about him and his work that can’t be answered or, maybe more to the point, don’t really need to be asked. For instance, after sketching out a critical debate over the opening line of the 1965 song “Desolation Row” — “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” — Wilentz hazards his own best guess as to its meaning: “Who knows?” (Whether that shrug is cheerful or a tad annoyed, I can’t quite tell.) He goes on to offer his own loose interpretation of this “strange,” fragmentary, hallucinatory song — something about its mocking orthodoxy — while staying mindful that its impact doesn’t rest on parsing every line but on the gestalt of song, singer and sound. To borrow a line, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
“Desolation Row” surfaces in a chapter on Dylan’s lyrical and stylistic debt to the Beats, an i.o.u. that won’t come as news to Dylan fans. (Nothing about Dylan will come as news to Dylan fans.) But Wilentz tells his tales of influence and inspiration with low-key panache, following the tributaries upstream to locate wellsprings of Dylan’s art — among them Aaron Cop­land, Bertolt Brecht, the Popular Front movement, various Nashville session men, the film “Les Enfants du Paradis,” the bluesman Blind Willie McTell (subject of one of Dylan’s greatest post-’70s songs), and a swamp-and-­holler’s worth of other blues and folk singers.
No one will ever map the entire Dylan genome, which isn’t Wilentz’s aim anyway. We all have our own Dylans, and my Dylan, the one who gets under my skin, is the musician, the restless bandleader pushing against his own (sometimes borrowed) melodies, not to mention the harmonica player who can blow such terse and cutting solos. (“Bob is a jazz musician as much as he’s anything else,” the drummer Jim Keltner, a frequent Dylan sideman, was quoted as saying in a recent issue of Mojo — possibly the most perceptive single sentence about Dylan ever uttered.) Fortunately, Wilentz is very, very good on the actual music. In fact, the centerpiece of his book is a vivid look at the “Blonde on Blonde” sessions, during which the musicians teased and groped their way toward the album’s “thin, wild mercury sound,” in Dylan’s famous description. Wilentz talked to several of the players, and I bet his account is nearly as good as the one Dylan didn’t give us in “Chronicles.”
Wilentz can write at times as if he’s a bit too beholden to his research. Does it really matter precisely when the young Robert Zimmerman first heard Pete Seeger sing? Devoting a paragraph to running down the most plausible dates feels like a knee-jerk scholarly reflex. On the other hand, after initially grumbling, I came to appreciate Wilentz’s extended dalliance with the Savannah, Ga., couple whose lethal lover’s quarrel on Christmas Eve 1900 was the seed that, watered by anonymous hands, sprouted into the song “Delia” and its many variants, one of them — the song probably has as many authors as it does singers — recorded by Dylan 93 years later on his album of folk and blues covers “World Gone Wrong.” That long journey, from crime scene to CD (and now iTunes store), is crucial to Wilentz’s book, and to the questions of what Dylan says about America, and vice versa. For Dylan, “Delia” was mother’s milk, a source of succor and renewed inspiration after a creatively barren stretch; the song’s back story and Dylan’s drawing from it reminds us that we are nothing if not a nation of born recyclers and self-reinventors — unless, perhaps, you happen to have been the ­real-life Delia, shot dead over a stupid argument so that later generations might have a haunting murder ballad to sing. Delia’s gone, as one version of the song goes, but the great white whale swims on.

Bruce Handy, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is a writer and deputy editor at Vanity Fair.


Post a Comment

<< Home