(Jawbone Press + Chicago
BY STEVE PICK
It seems there’s no end of things to say about Bob Dylan.
We’re just a few months away from the 50th anniversary of young
Robert Zimmerman’s first appearance in New
York, and not all that much farther away from the 50th anniversary of the cottage industry called Dylanology. From the beginning,
Dylan’s music has led to people musing about what it all means and how did it
all get that way.
Two brand new books tackle the subject from different
viewpoints, though each starts in the
middle of the ‘70s with the release of the last Dylan album that everybody
agrees was great, Blood on the Tracks.
Sid Griffin, who used to play in the Long Ryders (still doing occasional
reunion gigs) and now leads the Coal Porters, takes a close look at the next
steps of Dylan’s long meanderings down the performance road in Shelter From the Storm: Bob Dylan’s Rolling
Thunder Years (Jawbone Press; 8 out of 10 stars). Clinton Heylin, who wrote
about Shakespeare before a long assortment of books on music, including six
previous works on Dylan alone, comes up with something to say about every
single documented song Bob Dylan wrote between 1974 and 2006 in Still On the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan,
1974-2006 (Chicago Review Press, 10 stars).
From the Storm is hardly the first book to shed light on the
1975-76 tours, but Griffin
has some fresh thoughts and some previously unavailable source materials.
Rolling Thunder neophytes will find the basic story of Dylan’s attempt at a
rock’n’roll carnival tour, with a wide variety of guest performers and, at least at first, as little
advance planning as he could get away with. There’s also detailed rundown on
the writing and recording process of Desire – Griffin doesn’t let Dylan or collaborator
Jacques Levy off the hook for their romantic takes on criminal behavior in
“Hurricane” or “Joey” – and a pretty thorough run-down of what paying customers
experienced at Rolling Thunder shows early and late.
acquired access to Roger McGuinn’s collection of audio verite tapes recorded on
the bus as the musicians traveled from town to town. Depending on your
tolerance for drunken and/or stoned rambling and cross-conversations between
the likes of McGuinn, Rambling Jack Elliott (whose nickname is herein revealed,
quite accurately, to have much more to do with his story-telling prowess than
with his desire to move on to places unknown), Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, David
Mansfield, and T Bone Burnett, you may find it excruciating to read the chapter
of transcription from just one of these tapes. On the other hand, when Mick
Ronson explains to McGuinn that he can actually name the chords Joni Mitchell
uses in her songs – remember that Mitchell basically invented her own tuning
and fingering methods years before Sonic Youth tried that sort of thing – you
just might find yourself getting goosebumps. This is an amazing
fly-on-the-wall opportunity to hear
musicians discussing their art.
Dylan filmed parts of the tour for use in TV specials both
aired and unaired, and in the four-hour long surrealistic film “Renaldo and
Clara.” Because Griffin
is a musician, he comes up with endless amounts of insight into tiny decisions
good and bad which make Dylan’s performances come off the way they do. (Just
for one example, Griffin’s
discussion is breathtaking on page 22 of the way Scarlet Rivera’s near-constant
fiddle fills work in ways a guitarist could never achieve). And he helpfully
edits Renaldo and Clara down into a
much shorter film, with all the necessary hints as to which clips you’ll want
to seek out on YouTube.
Heylin’s book is the second of a two-volume set which looks
at the first 600 songs Bob Dylan has written for mostly public consumption. The
first volume, Revolution in the Air,
had the advantage of containing explications of the 200 songs Dylan had written
and mostly performed before 1967; the first 9 years of his writing were
considerably more prolific than the next 53. Still on the Road, however, covers a breadth of material no less
intriguing, if artistically more sporadic. There is the aforementioned
acknowledged masterpiece Blood on the
Tracks, and a range of one to six or seven terrific songs on each album of
original music Dylan has released since.
It should be said that Heylin, while acknowledging the
ability of songs to come alive via the recording process or even more often,
onstage, is primarily interested in the words Dylan writes. As Dylan seems to
be almost never satisfied with the entirety of his songs, and as Heylin has
heard every single live Dylan performance ever recorded by the most obscure
bootlegger in the world, there is much breakdown of alternative approaches to
these words. For every improvement Dylan has made in this process, he’s thrown
away some gems. “Wiggle Wiggle,” for instance, from 1989’s Under the Red Sky, was an apocalyptic rant before it became the
lightest weight celebration of sexual pleasures ever.
Heylin loves Street
Legal more than most critics, and he is troubled by laziness and sonic
excess on Time Out of Mind more than
is generally done. He offers rigorous scholarship on not only the Biblically-inspired
songs of Slow Train Coming, Saved,
and Shot of Love, but on the dozens
of further explorations of Christian principles Dylan has offered since the
so-called end of the Christian period. And, considering the wealth of
information Heylin unearths on folk music sources, pop music templates, and
other assorted influences on Dylan’s mind, the recent trend towards accusations
of out and out plagiarism gets an interesting take from Heylin. It all boils
down to the belief that Dylan can take any source and make it into something
uniquely his own, but that when he doesn’t do anything aside from quote, the
result is flat and easily dismissed.
For all Heylin’s
elucidation, he’s also just plain a hoot to read. You won’t believe how many
ways he can insult the musicianship of the Grateful Dead in a book wherein they
really shouldn’t be overly involved (though, apparently, the brief tour Dylan
and the Dead did together was instrumental in getting him to dig through his
back catalogue for songs he hadn’t performed in years). And Heylin never misses
a chance to make a punning reference to Dylan song titles and lyrics (though
admittedly, these are easier found in the first volume of the set).
and Heylin convey their love of Dylan’s music, their occasional exasperation at
his choices, and their ability to find different ways into songs which may have
seemed either frustratingly opaque or overly obvious. Both books send one back
out to the source material with fresh ears. Listening to Bob Dylan just became
even more pleasurable.