Register Wednesday | June 19 | 2019

Bob Dylan R.I.P.

Whatever happened to rock's greatest prophet?

This spring Bob Dylan offered us two versions of himself. In late March he released Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall, a recording that fixes in time the pre-electric idyll of his solidarity with the folk movement. Then in early April he appeared in a television ad for Victoria’s Secret. The commercial looks standard enough at first: a supermodel type, buckled into bra, panties, strappy heels and enormous angel wings, struts through Venice to the sound of one of Dylan’s latter-day hits, the moody “Love Sick.” But a few seconds into the spot Dylan himself appears on screen, leering at the camera, his eyes made up and face spackled together.

The media’s response was swift. Slate’s Ad Report Card described Dylan as “some sort of death’s-head demon, who looks poised to bite into the pretty youth’s skull.” Entertainment Weekly smirked too: apparently kids these days “love the undie rock.” Within days of each other, the LA Times, the Boston Globe and Time all hauled out old Dylan lyrics to great sarcastic effect. The intensity of such reactions just shows how firmly we cling to the monolith of a noble folk/rock prophet Dylan. But as Mike Marqusee, author of Chimes20of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art, rightly pointed out in the Guardian, “At this stage in Dylan’s career, accusations of sell-out have lost all meaning.”

And it really isn’t a question of whether Dylan sold out. We no longer blush to recognize last year’s hit peddling an SUV or a pantyliner, and we’ve already heard Dylan’s tunes in advertising. The use of an artist’s image, however, is something else. It betrays desperation, a plea for publicity. Dylan’s TV cameo—glaring from the screen with a semi-nude girl catwalking behind him—suggests the opposite of swagger: for the first time, he seems to need us.

Not needing his audience, however, has been the one constant in Dylan’s career. His independence gained symbolic expression the day he plugged in at Newport and infuriated folk fans—a masochism later replicated throughout a world tour. Dylan’s defection from folk to rock ’n’ roll propelled him into a new persona. It’s impossible to discuss the folk revival of the 1960s without mentioning the word “authenticity,” and what really changed when Dylan donned the leather jacket and electric guitar was his definition of that term. He went from valuing (or seeming to value) a pure, honest relationship with folk audiences to imposing his postures and aggressions on rock audiences. The latter style became the definition of attitude—a quality that informs not just the image of rock stars, but also their music, making the whole package too slippery for criticism to grapple with.

Rock music is hard to write about. In a way, it is impossible to write about any kind of music, just as it is impossible to write about painting, sculpture, dance, film—any non-linguistic or more-than-linguistic art. In the case of rock music, though, this sonic intangibility is often taken as evidence of the art form’s unquestionable greatness. Add to that the fact that rock stars are, well, rock stars, and the critic’s most dangerous temptation is mesmerism at the altar of celebrity. But “serious” rock critics also simplify their subjects: if you read rock music as an exclusively social document or as a purely aesthetic text, you’ll miss a vital part of its mysterious hold on the culture. Three recent critical studies of Dylan and his work illustrate the pitfalls of these different approaches.

Exposed to the extreme cool of rock ’n’ roll, most prose freezes or cracks. Not all rock criticism melts in springtime, but it has become an industry standard for rock critics to write like ecstatic converts. Few rock critics are as persuasive as Greil Marcus, for instance, on the subject of American identity as interpreted through blues and rock. Marcus’ ideas about culture are specific and constructed like sturdy bridges between disparate referents. Yet when he gets a chance to simply describe the sound of music, he revels in a dizzy lack of oxygen. Here he is on Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”: “As he sings his words are clipped, his diction almost effete, as if each word can and must be presented as if it means exactly what it says. But very quickly this odd speech becomes its own kind of rhythm, and paradoxically it releases the burden Dylan has seemingly placed on each word, and each word along with every other floats, and the song becomes a dream of peace of mind.” I know people who love this kind of thing, but I think what they love is the enormous intellectual relief of not needing to examine what Marcus is trying to say, so long as they can feel their way among his loopy associations.

A professor of mine once called this the “counter-creational” school of criticism, but in its swooning sensitivity it is still one notch above the shallow cheerleading of a book like Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard’s A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks. When the album appeared in 1975, it had already been nine years since Dylan’s legend-making motorcycle crash, which was followed by almost two years of seclusion, the bootleg phenomenon of the Basement Tapes, the well-received but slightly anachronistic John Wesley Harding and a string of uninspired albums in which Dylan’s irrelevance seemed to crescendo. Blood on the Tracks was first recorded in New York in September 1974, but a delay in its release allowed Dylan to continue to poke at it. He decided it could use improvement and retired to Minnesota in late December to re-record five of the songs.

In their album-ography, Gill and Odegard dispense with cultural analysis and instead privilege the minute details of the session musicians’ lives (not surprising, perhaps, given that Odegard played guitar on the Minnesota recordings). They stop briefly to look at Dylan’s failing marriage to Sara Lownds—the presumed grain of sand that raised the pearl—and then from there zoom from one site of behind-the-scenes interest to another, the overall sequence resembling those disaster movies in which you meet seventeen unrelated characters separately before they all come together to zap the onrushing meteor/tidal wave/tornado. The natural phenomenon in this case is Dylan himself, variously epitheted as “the living legend,” “the resurgent legend,” “the mercurial artist,” “a lonely superstar,” “the voice of a generation” and, of course, “the world’s greatest living songwriter.” In a linguistic slam dunk that caps the book’s only chapter of historical context, which takes note of Nixon’s resignation, the songs in Blood on the Tracks are said to have “an unimpeachable quality.”

Because Dylan remains the ghost haunting the centre of this book, the work of main characters gets fobbed off on the studio musicians from New York and Minneapolis. This is largely what happened in real life as well, judging from the musicians’ reminiscences (their words are dumped, unedited, into lumpy paragraphs, creating the false impression that the book is an oral history). The curious thing about A Simple Twist of Fate is how its zippy, fan-mail prose surrounds evidence that Dylan was in fact an autocratic ass who couldn’t be bothered to credit a few small-town guys on his album cover. Even his brother, David Zimmerman, who helped make the Minnesota recordings possible, cringed before the great Dylan-Oz. Because Gill and Odegard offer little musical analysis (beyond interminable quotations detailing what types of microphones were used in recording sessions), you’re left with the sense that the “lonely superstar” was a bit of a fink. It’s not a particularly valuable revelation (and who knows if it’s accurate), but this level of analysis is what tends to follow from the assumption that rock music is sublime and that merely describing how it’s made is also nifty.



Readers who prefer the Gill-Odegard school of fawning should avoid Mike Marqusee’s Chimes of Freedom, which dismisses Blood on the Tracks—the entire album—in half a sentence: “but [it] has little to say about the contemporary public sphere, except to imply that it is a morass.” Marqusee has no interest in art constructed around the private psyche; this is not someone you should trust with your copies of Emily Dickinson or Lolita. His book has its blind spots, but in general it probes deeply and delicately the connections between 1960s politics and Dylan’s art. I suspect that Marqusee is inoculated against rock decadence because he is not interested in Dylan primarily as a rock star, but as a folk hero. This leads him to argue for a re-evaluation of the early “finger-pointin’” songs, songs that even Dylan later disowned.

Marqusee never does make a persuasive case for the artistic merit of the early protest songs, but somehow this does not weaken the book’s appeal. He admits that “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” in which a destitute man murders his family then commits suicide, is “hysterical,” but continues, “That’s what it needs to be; it’s the hysteria of poverty and powerlessness.” “Oxford Town,” a response to the riots that accompanied the court-ordered admission of the University of Mississippi’s first black student, is “plainspoken and moving, if one-dimensional.” He concedes that the lyrics of “John Brown” are “sometimes cumbersome, the naturalism is crude, and the hysteria less disciplined than in ‘Hollis Brown,’” but sees the song as a foreshadowing of Ron Kovic’s anti-Vietnam crusades. For Marqusee, the songs are valuable simply because of the messages they espouse.

The book’s four long chapters are snipped into short, coherent sections that (pardon me for saying so) take the pain out of reading three hundred pages on social protest. In this thematic fricassee, we taste the symbiosis that existed between Dylan and the civil rights movement, the country’s radical left and the anti-war movement. (Feminism is the only sixties movement that left Dylan uninformed, and Marqusee devotes significant space to exposing the condescension to women implicit in Dylan’s lyrics. Look for a footnote on Victoria’s Secret in future editions.) Marqusee makes a powerful case for Dylan’s political astuteness, in places arguing that Dylan’s songs were visionary rather than simply reactive. He points out, for instance, that “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was written and first performed prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the event generally credited as the song’s inspiration.

What emerges from all this is a palpable sense of the extent to which music in the sixties struggled with an informed world view. Ubi sunt those violent days? Now we have Radiohead’s intellectual conscience tacking up chapters from No Logo at stadium shows: such a critique may feel like radical politics (the gumption of criticizing corporations in such a setting!), but it falls short (as soon as those anti-logos fill the stadium, they become logos, don’t they?). Hip hop may be the last branch of pop music that still grapples with public issues, but its rhetoric, often a baroque palimpsest of anti-liberal poses, is tricky and resists conclusions. You can choose your own level of sarcasm when listening to Eminem—his ambiguity sits at the centre of his art. Marqusee, though, would argue that political conviction leaves no room for ambiguity.

The irony is that Marqusee’s preference for protest songs leads him, in the book’s final twist, to champion Bruce Springsteen over Dylan. Far from suggesting that the “working-class waifs and strays, hard-drivers, abandoned mothers, [and] small-time criminals” that populate Springsteen’s songs might be clichés, Marqusee argues that they constitute “the real American tribe.” But you don’t need to have read much rock lore to know that Springsteen was largely a figment of his manager Jon Landau’s imagination. According to The Mansion on the Hill, Fred Goodman’s account of how rock music snowballed into big business, Landau told Springsteen what movies to see, what books to read, what records to buy, until the cultural make-over was so complete that Springsteen’s persona mapped directly onto Landau’s favourite movie character: The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, a hardbitten, stoic Civil War veteran brought to life by John Wayne. (A small sub-irony: Landau started out as a rock critic, plying the channel between language and inexpressible cool; eventually he found Springsteen, the perfect vessel for his creativity.) Regardless of whether you buy Goodman’s analysis, a simply musical contest between Dylan and Springsteen is a bit like comparing Marlon Brando and Greg Kinnear. Springsteen’s embrace of the underclass, though, is enough to win over Marqusee. There’s a certain poignancy in seeing this savvy critic gulled by the same music-industry apparatus that he implicitly dismantles in Chimes of Freedom.

Of course, Marqusee’s own taste influences this choice. In the course of the book, he occasionally leaks his preference for “functional” songs (in the Marxist sense), as when he calls the swirling, incantatory language of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—brace yourselves, fans—“an indulgence.” It is bracing, in fact, to read Chimes of Freedom and feel yourself lowered, like a deep-sea diver, into the waters of Marqusee’s critical self—not just his aesthetic judgment, but also his conscience (even if the latter sometimes limits the former). This is what20you get with historical criticism: the sense that what you’re reading has moral weight in the real world. 

The real world is no more than an epistemological riddle, though, to critics who style themselves postmodern, and Stephen Scobie, author of Alias Bob Dylan: Revisited, is of this clan. Revisited is the revised and substantially padded reissue of Scobie’s 1991 opus, Alias Bob Dylan. Both volumes are written in a rather fuddy-duddy dialect of textbookese: “Love songs of one kind or another—contented love or rejected love, careless love or abandoned love—make up the great majority of popular music,” in case you didn’t know. And to make sure you can keep up, both editions offer periodic lessons on Roland Barthes and the two Jacques (Derrida and Lacan). Scobie, who is a poet in his other life, offers two rather literary propositions here: that Dylan’s persona takes the form of either prophet or trickster (which is interesting, though not exactly original) and that Dylan’s career can be triple-layered into phases called “the Years of Creation, the Years of Commitment, and the Years of Performance” (which is not so interesting, nor is it properly worked out in the second edition’s bewildering array of chapters and sub-chapters).

Scobie’s real proposition, though, is that every part of the universe that makes contact with the hem of Dylan’s shirt deserves analysis as a “text” in the “system” of Bob Dylan. Thus there is no need to call anything good or bad, as all texts are equally significant. And it’s true that this sometimes leads to fascinating by-the-way ideas: considering Dylan’s penchant for switching identities, it is apt that he played a character named Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and that the role itself dramatized the notion of “the other.” Scobie’s reflections on the idea of performance—it “rides the dividing line between sameness and difference. The same song, different every night”—also reward attention. But at a certain point, the marriage of Scobie the fan (thrilled by all things Dylan) and Scobie the pomo critic (thrilled to analyze all things Dylan) produces an asymmetric love child. How much do we care that the acronym of Blonde on Blonde spells you-know-who, or that “mark” was misspelled as “mask” in a critic’s blurb on Dylan’s first album, or that the album “Love and Theft” has quotation marks in its title?

To wade through Scobie’s book, non–PhD candidates must possess an unhinged level of Dylan fanaticism. As it turns out, the impulse that subsidizes breathless rock criticism—Gill and Odegard’s “wild ride” account of Blood on the Tracks, for instance—is the same impulse that gives bug-eyed pomo critics a crick in their necks from typing dense unreadable paragraphs all day. In both cases, the traditional job of the critic (forgive my quaintness) is foregone: there is no attempt to discriminate between the good, the bad and the silly. The sillier the better, in fact.

Scobie devotes twenty pages to dissecting Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” bringing to the task all the humourless literalness of a Vulcan studying our human ways. In response to the line “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain,” Scobie scratches his chin: “I am unaware of any recording, at any point in Dylan’s career, which features more than one harmonica at a time.” This meditation seeps into a second paragraph: “None of the available recordings of ‘Visions of Johanna’ features any extended harmonica solo by Dylan.” Then follows an analysis of the role of harmonicas in Dylan’s oeuvre, followed by the conclusion that in general “the harmonica is used for punctuation and for laconic commentary, rather than being allowed to extend into a full solo.” By this point, if you’re still reading, you can be forgiven for not noticing that Scobie does not have a point in pursuing this line of argument. I found myself longing for Greil Marcus and his enormous ears.

The real advantage of Scobie’s project, of course, is that it never needs to end—since all “texts” are relevant, there’s no reason to ever stop revising, updating, “revisiting.” Even Dylan’s death won’t kill the propagation of Dylanania in our culture. Thus, in a few years we can expect Alias Bob Dylan to include a sub-chapter on the Victoria’s Secret debacle. And why not? Dylan’s appearance in a lingerie ad within weeks of his 1964 live concert release is perfect fodder for the Scobie brain: the trickster and prophet enact yet another switcheroo.

But perhaps tricksters are easier to dismantle than prophets. Despite his recent abasement on behalf of Victoria’s Secret, Dylan continues to be seen as the young idealist of the 1964 Philharmonic Hall concert (who grew into a less politically responsible rocker after 1965). For some reason, we can’t integrate that heroic image with the less inspiring facts of his life and music—his careerist cunning, his conversion to fundamental Christianity, his many less-than-brilliant albums, his embarrassing dabblings in film. Dylan contains some visionary core that we cannot give up on. A devilish alloy of authenticity and artifice, an essence endemic to rock ’n’ roll: the thing most critics take too seriously, or not seriously enough.

Check out for a Web Exclusive review of Christopher Ricks’ hot-off-the-presses Dylan’s Visions of Sin.