Friday, January 28, 2011

Bob Dylan By Greil Marcus and Bob Dylan Complete Discography by Brian Hinton

Some thoughts on Time as experienced while reading

Bob Dylan By Greil Marcus and
Bob Dylan Complete Discography by Brian Hinton

Part One

If, like me, you need the music of BD like you need sunlight and good food, both of these books are well worth your Time.

In truth, I’m only a few years into the Marcus book, but the little I’ve read so far has already inspired me to comment. As Dylan once said (or borrowed from another most likely) in a 1978 interview, “the highest function of art is to inspire.” I trust Marcus’ intelligence and insight and I love the mysterious syntax of his writing, a style that is filled with gaps and leaps.  I also disagree with him often. But that seems to be okay. In this latest collection, he had me hooked from the introduction, when he writes of Dylan commentary not as a matter of authority or ignorance but as a “conversation . . . that has raised the stakes of the lives of those who have taken part.”

I’ve owned Brian Hinton’s stout little text for years and I believe it is the only essential summary of the albums and songs. (I have been unable, thus far, to finish Clinton Heylin’s more comprehensive volumes — the tone of the first book, in contrast to both of these works, seems condescending. I’m sure I will try again.)

Time is the subject here. Both of these books both move through time. BD by GM is a collection of columns and essays written from 1970 until the present. Hinton takes us on a retrospective full circle, from 1962’s  “Bob Dylan” to the of the 2005 release of “Bob Dylan Live at The Gaslight, 1962.” The obvious difference is that Marcus is aging and changing through time in his pieces, while Hinton is looking back from a future position, from the comfortable perch of experience. Both of these points of view are essential in assessing one’s relationship with Dylan’s art. That’s why I join them together here — two ways of looking.

Most of us remember the past like Hinton, and that is only natural. We include in our recollections the wisdom of our years, the shadows of distance and mortality, and the absorbed commentary of whatever group-mind we admire. We reflect on the past in a fond or detached or critical mental tone. But reading Marcus reminds me that we — those of us of a certain age — have experienced Bob Dylan’s musical chronicle from another point of view. In some way or another, we were there. Each one of us experienced a set of songs and performances in an actual past time.  It’s unavoidable that our history has become mythic, an abstraction we create as we go. We layer the years and thoughts with a sediment that filters both up and down. Memory is always a reconciliation but it must not become a pure fiction. At the time, we were not making it up. We simply lived there, in a gone age.

Using this model (let’s call it “duality, mortality”), springing back and forth in a personal time machine, and speaking of 1978 and inspiration, I want to think a little on STREET-LEGAL. Perhaps you also have an opinion to share. STREET-LEGAL is, after all, the most contentiously debated record Bob has recorded. On the discussion boards, the subject of STREET-LEGAL always lights fuses. In the year of its release, in a Rolling Stone review reproduced in the current book, Marcus called it “dead air.” I doubt he has revised that opinion since — the album goes unmentioned for the last 300 pages of his book.  Why would he reconsider anyway? I suppose its possible to think of a thing as “utterly fake” in the day and mind-blowing in later years, but probably not. When Marcus reflects back, I can only imagine that he hears the same white noise that he heard at the time.

Greil Marcus heard falsity and emptiness in that year of 1978. His head was elsewhere, in other music or culture or personal detail. STREET-LEGAL didn’t appeal. It seems to have made him feel queasy.

I heard something else. And I wasn’t alone. On July 15, 1978, more than a quarter million of us showed up at a disused aerodrome in the Surrey countryside. The promoters called it “The Picnic at Blackbushe” and STREET-LEGAL was the strange atmosphere we breathed. It was nearly chaos but not quite. It was nearly madness but not quite. It didn’t make sense but it was magnificent. It was majestic and dangerous, teetering on the edge of a dark chasm. It went on all day in the heat and the dust. You couldn’t really move. In the night there were fires. Clapton played guitar that evening, one more insistent wave of sound in Dylan’s largest band, melding with and separating from David Mansfield’s mandolin and Steve Douglas’ saxophone. I can understand why some critics and fans dislike STREET-LEGAL. If you weren’t in the place it describes — a place in the unpredictable reaches of the psyche, of which Blackbushe was the largest manifestation, nearly a dream, but not quite — I can see how it comes across as a very strange record, poorly recorded.

STREET-LEGAL, and the Christian records, are the most static in time of Dylan’s work. In my last post I wrote of how, in the modern songs, Dylan travels effortlessly through time, from the 1800’s to the near future. Hinton points out that on Blood on the Tracks Bob had found a way to write music that put him outside of time. On the mid-sixties records Dylan is channeling time and often, although he denies it vehemently, he seems to be actually creating it.  On STREET-LEGAL and the gospel LPs, we have something different again. Bob was absolutely inside of time. I do not mean expressing it. I mean trapped inside of it.

Some of us were caught there with him — for the entire year of 1978 and several years that followed. Greil Marcus was not stuck with us. Good for him. He was free and elsewhere. From the outside, from a critical distance, the confusion and disorientation, and that chorus of women repeating our thoughts, may have seemed unappealing and insane. Bob’s trio of African-American ladies was disparaged by the critics, but we relied on them with desperation. They had a power over us. Dylan introduced them as “my ex-girlfriend, my girlfriend and my fiancĂ©e.” Where exactly in time are we talking about? We are in Portland, Oregon in the autumn of 1978, when the make-up, such a clever conceit back in the days of Rolling Thunder, now dripped off Dylan’s face like blood. In Tucson, Arizona, a couple weeks later, when someone threw a small silver cross onto the stage.

What does Brian Hinton have to say about STREET-LEGAL? “an enigma . . . as unreadable as the Sphinx . . . might prove in the long run to be one of Dylan’s most profound records . . . a man whose self-confidence is shot away . . . post-cocaine burn-out atmosphere” Apologies for the lack of context, but I hope Hinton would agree that lack of context, when it comes to STREET-LEGAL, is part of the point. The world is sexual, magical, unpredictable, violent, and deceptive, and your next step might land you in a place you only imagined, or feared, existed.

How about “Is Your Love in Vain?” Marcus calls it, smartly, “a sultan checking out a promising servant girl for VD.” But this cold analysis reaffirms that GM, in 1978, was in a land far away from the emotional country of the singer. Hinton, on the other hand, is on track when he refers to the “weariness” in Dylan’s voice. And dead right on when he calls the song a “xerox of a xerox” of the Dylan’s earlier, self-proclaimed, “thin, wild Mercury sound.” The singer seems to be buried just under the ground with his band.

Marcus reads “Is Your Love in Vain” as the height of arrogance. On the contrary, I hear a heartbeat that is completely vulnerable, if arrhythmic and muffled. A heart so smudged by despair that it is unreadable to its owner and everyone else. “All right, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you.” Marcus comments, rightly, that this is “an odd notion of how falling in love works.” But somehow he misses that this is exactly the point. The singer is so separated from the reality of love that he believes he can decide to feel it. He hopes, without a shred of confidence, that it is a matter of his will. Of course he knows this approach is doomed. He does not truly see the woman he is looking at. The possibility of falling exists but love is not at the bottom.

This song at least unites Hinton and Marcus in their feminism, with both disparaging Bob’s query of whether the woman in question can “cook and sew, make flowers grow.” I will certainly agree that this fellow Dylan seems a bit desperate and needy, but let’s face it guys, we’ve all been there. Actually, that’s exactly ONE ASPECT of what I wanted in a wife. And you know what? She understands my pain too.

Where was I? Time.  Jimmy Carter. Bob Marley. The Shah of Iran. Ronald Reagan. “Memory, ecstasy, tyranny, hypocrisy” Are these random words, vaguely portentous and chosen with a rhyming dictionary? I don’t think so. Perhaps they are haphazard but they are taken straight from the air that we breathed in the late 70’s . . .

“then Savage Rose & Fixable come by & kick him in the brains & color him pink for being a phony philosopher -- then the Clown comes by and screams "You phony philosopher!" & jumps on his head” — from the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited.

To be continued . . .

Thursday, January 13, 2011

“shadows of my possible self”

a discussion of
by Bob Dylan

A few weeks ago, I wrote of my hope that new Bob Dylan fans might look to the Idiot Child for some ideas when choosing a book or two to read about the minstrel from Hibbing. I now take the liberty of casting myself forward into that fantasy.

A good place to begin is with the man’s own words, in CHRONICLES, VOLUME ONE.

In 2004, at the age of sixty-three, Dylan surprised us all by publishing a clear and honest memoir that explains his beginnings as a songwriter. It describes in sensory detail the early days in New York City, as well as a few critical transition points in his career. The book is a latter day wonder and further proof that Bob’s best work with the poetics of the English language cannot be confined to any one period or even one form. Of course, we will always know Dylan as a musician and songwriter first, but the simple lucidity of CHRONICLES flushes away, for at least a moment, our frequent desire to decode lyrics and conceptualize a message. As always, Bob defies expectations. The slogans die on our lips when we read that Dylan wanted “to set fire” to the “dropouts and druggies” who descended upon him in Woodstock and that Barry Goldwater was, for a time, the musician’s favorite politician.

Someone said (please share if you can remember who) that Dylan is indeed an emblem of the sixties — the 1860s. CHRONICLES shows us that man. Yet he writes with the same voice we hear in his latter period songs, in lyrics written at the turn of the millennium. It is a voice that spans generations and defeats all attempts to place the musician just HERE or perhaps only HERE.  Yes, it’s true, in 1965 the songwriter turned folk perfection on its head and made it rock out. He was a prism, catching all the light of the moment and refracting it back in brilliant shards, opening minds and blinding eyes. Much has been written about Dylan’s supple facilitation and/or channeling of those freaked out seconds, days, weeks, and months. But the mature timbre of 21st century Bob, rough-hewn in a way he could only pretend at forty-six years earlier, looks out, not over one moment in time, but over centuries. CHRONICLES is written with the same tone and sense of transcendence as the civil war ballad “Cross the Green Mountain” and the mash-up throwback LP “Love and Theft.” Without doubt, the cracked crystalline vision of “Highway 61 Revisited” is beautiful, but his later art, including CHRONICLES, is less a product of a singular time, and more a product of “time out of mind.”

In CHRONICLES, Bob summons with clarity the simple innocence of the years in Minneapolis and New York. He returns frequently to thoughts of family, both the one he sired in his late twenties and the one he left behind in Minnesota.  He writes of Hibbing tenderly, evoking memories such as the quiet, chill splendor of a Christmas season in the 1950’s. To some readers this will come as a surprise, because we are not accustomed to thinking of Dylan as an innocent. After all, back in 1962 and 1963 he was already acting like an old folk blues man. And the first thing most Americans heard from him, just a short time later, was the detached wisdom of “Blowing in the Wind,” and the cruel truths of “Hard Rain.”  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the electric revolution. But I love thinking of the boy from the North Country, growing up quiet and leaving home loud. Dylan gives us such a relatable portrait of that young man in CHRONICLES, with an intimacy that belies the myth of the “mysterious and silent recluse.”

In his memoir, Bob speaks of a gradual progress toward artistic success. He is gracious in giving credit to friends and he writes with humility about the influence of past masters. He tells us about the couches he slept on, the books he read, and the records he listened to. And while it is reasonable and sensible to question a name or two (Ray Gooch and his wife seem to be composite figures), I doubt there is much that could be called fiction in the life Dylan portrays. His art has always balanced on the edge between inner and outer truth. In CHRONICLES, Dylan gives us more than simple facts and places and anecdotes. He guides us on a look around his mind, in the settings where it began to develop and then explode.

We experience the aspiring songwriter listening in awe to a Robert Johnson LP given to him by John Hammond. Okay, no big news there; everyone knows that Dylan was and is a scholar of folk as well as a musical sponge. But what strikes me is what Dylan says next. He copies out the lyrics so that he can “more closely examine the big-ass truths wrapped in a hard shell of nonsensical abstraction.” When I read this I remembered sitting in a temporary bedroom in my twenties, in the mid-eighties, transcribing the lyrics of “Changing of the Guards” from an old cassette so that their full weirdness and power could wrap their arms around me. I know I was not alone in that pre-internet era ritual of copying out the words of Dylan — not to revere the man but to immerse more completely in a vibe that resonated in soul-time — that created an inner harmonic — that added extra dimension and depth to the culture at hand.

When Dylan copied out the words of Robert Johnson he was looking for a common humanity, one that both linked to, and transcended, the strife of his times. The same also, when he sat in the New York Public Library reading microfiche newspapers from the period of the Civil War. With sharp artistic instinct, he realized that the “folk movement” and the “protest movement” were transitory, while the folk song and the human struggle were timeless. In his memoir and in the later songs, Dylan shows that his own mystery, so beguiling and confounding, is mostly a product of being human and of paying close attention to the common human mystery. Bob knows deeply that there are things he does not understand, such as the prose of James Joyce. And after a visit with the poet Archibald MacLeish, he wonders if he, “and everyone else,” has been marked with “a secret sign” from before birth.

In CHRONICLES you get the idea that Bob is not so different than you or me or Sun Pie, the crazy shop owner he encounters on the outskirts of New Orleans, in the chapter about the making of “Oh Mercy.” Truth and fiction-wise, who knows, perhaps Sun Pie is a figment of his mind. But most likely not. Most likely he was a real person that Dylan met, who mirrored one slice of his own soul.  That’s the kind of person we seem to meet up with in Bob Dylan’s song-world — which is also the real world, as I have experienced it. Where we each have many layers of personality and self and desire, and each quality is reflected back at us by those we love and admire and also, unfortunately, sometimes by those whom we dislike.   

CHRONICLES gives it to us straight. The wonder of Dylan’s art is the is the clear window it offers. Bob seems like such a mystery and a cipher, but in CHRONICLES he makes it plain, once again, that his mind is just another angle on your mind. That’s why we like the music so much. It contains me and you and Robert Johnson as well, and he pulls it off in a way hardly anyone else has been able to do. The prism of the sixties has flattened into a glass so transparent and light that it is nearly undetectable. Dylan borrows what he loves and gives it back, with added beauty. We feel recognized. That’s a good feeling.