Bob Dylan brings out the worst in scholars. The ambiguity of his lyrics, his lifelong, unapologetic promotion of his own myth, and his perpetual reinvention allow anyone with a little intellectual ambition to believe he has legitimated his own theories just by dressing them up in a few Dylan references. It's easy to do, it's a popular pastime, and it impresses those who are impressed by that sort of thing (which these days includes pretty much anyone in the academy who draws a paycheck outside the hard sciences).
In Bob Dylan in America, Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz meanders back and forth across the line between truly informative and embarrassingly self-indulgent, often within a chapter and occasionally within a sentence. For every fly-on-the-soundboard detail of music's most influential recording sessions, there's an aching (and unnecessary) documenting of some stoned conversation between Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, plus a side-trip through musical history in which the author insists that some tune tossed off in a Greenwich Village bar in 1961 is actually the calculated hybrid of other tossed-off tunes by performers a hundred years gone. Thus you get the worst of both worlds: all the bloodless misery of history's most trivial details, paired with analysis that, if accurate, is only coincidentally so, given that it relies on Wilentz's abilty to read his subject's mind. (That's not to say what worked for Bob Woodward isn't just as interesting here. But it is worth noting that the technique has a new adherent.)
Either you find this stuff interesting or you don't. It's clever theorizing and it might actually be correct, but it grates when the author presents best guesses as indisputable fact. Many passionate Bob Dylan fans are suckers for this kind of thing; to have the imprimatur of a public intellectual is welcome for those who wish Dylan to be taken seriously. But is the singer worth the trouble? That depends on the answers to several subjective questions: Does Bob Dylan belong only in the realm of popular culture, or does his work transcend it? And if he does belong only in popular culture, is popular culture worth studying with such reverence and intensity?
Wilentz takes the standard shortcut of Dylanologists by suggesting (though not insisting) he can be considered a poet instead of only a pop musician. The author paves this well-worn path by documenting the time the singer spent with the Beats, particularly with Ginsberg. A few things are certain: Dylan shared some of the attitudes and techniques of the Beats. He took what they did with writing and translated it into performance and experience, and thus was more influential on popular culture than all of them put together. But Dylan transcended the Beats, whose great concerns are today no more than pet causes in university English departments. He changed the way pop songs are written (and by recording his own songs, just as vitally changed the economics of the music industry) and produced idioms and expressions now as common as Shakespeare's. The Beats wrote some books, few of which have aged well.
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Although a hallmark of the Beats was their embrace of spontaneity and rejection of planning and self-discipline, Wilentz plants Dylan firmly in their camp while at the same time ascribing to him profound reflection on relatively ancient music. This obvious conflict could have been cured simply by identifying Bob Dylan's position in the pantheon of American music. Instead, Wilentz insists (with little evidence) that Dylan "was not so much a sponge...as an alchemist," purposefully finding inspiration in, among other things, "1930s French films, 1850s minstrel songs, the works of Shakespeare, Dolly Parton, Saint John of Patmos, Muddy Waters."
Wilentz doesn't dispute that if Dylan had wanted to be a poet, he wouldn't have picked up a guitar, and he cites the now-standard stories about teenaged Dylan banging out Little Richard tunes and planning his getaway to be a rock-and-roll star. But when seen in this light, the singer's association with the Beats' self-important and sophomoric baggage seems less like a savant's calculation and more like a young artist's entirely predictable affectation, expressing the standard-issue need for Art To Have Meaning.
Fortunately, and once he gets beyond the early 1960s, Wilentz avoids the "he's a poet with melodies" trap, providing a thorough (if occasionally overlong) examination of the artist as a musician, performer, songwriter, producer, and musical spelunker. This is not a minor achievement; in the overstuffed sub-genre of Dylanology, to consider the work in all its facets is rare. If one ignores the worshipful imagining of young Dylan as cunning musical historian, Wilentz otherwise ably identifies the songwriter's location in and influence on American culture and music across the decades, which truly is a job for a historian.
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Bob Dylan's work is engaging enough without the cultural, political, and social artifice piled upon it by critics, and that value goes beyond the lyrics, too. For instance, "[t]here's a quote from Dylan from a long time ago about lyrics being not that important in his music," says Chicago-based musical polymath Robbie Fulks. "But that comes off as one of his many guilefully misleading remarks." Fulks reminds that poetry intersects in a unique way with songwriting through the sound of words.
I think it holds explanatory power for the effectiveness of songs of his such as Summer Days, Wicked Messenger, Tombstone Blues, Jokerman, on and on.... The lyrics advance the song by their phonetic sound and unconscious connotations a lot more than their [literary] weight—or by their value as poetry, which, when you rip them from where they belong and spread them out on a page, they're not. The melodies and collective performance focus are more essential.
If Wilentz doesn't always manage the right execution, his heart is in the right place, and he understands how such a book should be approached. The author grew up around the bohemian types that Dylan fell in with when he first came to New York; Wilentz's uncle owned the cafe where the singer met Ginsberg. The author recalls as a boy seeing Dylan in concert, and says that as he wrote the book, he tried to "braid the background together with my memories, hoping to recapture the sense of what it was like to see things through thirteen-year-old eyes...while sustaining what authority I had as a professional historian." Good enough; it takes a fan.
One of the strengths of being a fan and a historian is that the author can act as an informed surrogate for the rest of us. He is in fact the "historian in residence" for Bob Dylan's official website and was given broad access to background material, including studio outtakes and leftover tracks. As a fan, he knows what the rest of us would want to hear out of the remainder pile. He tantalizes with a recounting of the breakdown of the recording of the Infidels album, whose sessions yielded some of Dylan's best writing and performances since his peak in the 1960s. The splendid outtakes were withheld from the public for a decade or more.
Still, being a fan has its drawbacks, and chief among them for Wilentz it is the inability to dispassionately consider his key question at length. For all the good work here, Wilentz's analysis gets sidetracked by old-fashioned hero worship.
But not nearly as much as David Yaffe in his new book, Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown. The good news for Dylan fans is that the book is an effusive love letter. The bad news is that the letter is to Yaffe. The verbiage rolls on without purpose, unless your idea of purpose is learning just how much Yaffe, an assistant professor of English at Syracuse University, admires Bob Dylan. The manuscript is a few facile observations and windy speculations stretched (barely) to book length, mixed with unnecessary sketches of Dylan associates such as film director Martin Scorsese.
The manuscript is not closely observed criticism, but rambling about pop culture—and therefore often rambling about rambling. The clumsiness is compounded by Yaffe's irritating habit of quoting Dylan lyrics in passing, as decoration. The introduction to the book foreshadows that it will be what nearly all Dylan books become: the author's reaction to the music (mostly the lyrics), rather than an explication of the artist's influence on the times, or vice-versa. Yaffe immediately finds the trap Wilentz mostly avoids.
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Bob Dylan's music and image is for most a mirror, and a flattering one; a way for anyone aspiring to inspiration to imagine himself inspirational not by being so, but by identifying it in others. Just about any interpretation of Dylan's lyrics is possible; the value of those interpretations tells us more about the audience than the performer. So Yaffe demonstrates one of the many tragedies of postmodernism: lacking a standard against which to measure quality, one may mistake his own musings for elucidations, which they rarely are. Dylan, by the way, called that "the disease of conceit."