by Paula Radice
1. Emerging details of the now-filming Masked and Anonymous:
Even the title is worrying, isn't it? Too overtly Dylanesque, too self-conscious and self-referential. Don't get me wrong, I've watched Hearts of Fire as many times as the next woman, and even enjoyed it (and I was one of the very few people in the world actually to view it in a cinema: I, and two obviously lost Japanese tourists, watched it in solitary splendour one afternoon in the huge Marble Arch Odeon. I had all of the stalls seats to myself).
It is always enjoyable watching Bob on screen, even when the film is as demonstrably dire as Hearts of Fire was. But don't we all already know that this film will be as bad, if not worse? How can it fail to be when the publicity releases are describing Dylan's character in the film as "an ageing rock star who is released from prison for a day to play one last concert in the hope of saving the world". Good grief.
The stars are queuing up to be in it, though (Mickey Rourke, John Goodman, Christian Slater, Jessica Lange, Penelope Cruz), just for the chance to be involved in something with The Great Man. Perhaps they should have a word with Rupert Everett, whose career was never the same again.
Mind you, Bob wasn't the reason Hearts of Fire was so awful. It had the worst, most trite, script imaginable, and both of Bob's co-stars (Everett and the then-unknown, and now even more unknown, "Fiona") simply floundered and died. At least Dylan provided some highly amusing comedy moments: my particular favourite is the wholly unconvincing Rock-Star-Trashing-Hotel-Room-and-Punching-People scene, in which Dylan looks about 5' 1" and about as threatening as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, and which ends with Dylan climbing into a taxi and asking to be taken to "London Airport", whatever the hell that is. This film will doubtless be entertaining, too, at least to us: watch out for the hoots of derision from the rest of the world, though.
2. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood soundtrack:
Dylan is so in demand for these sorts of things, nowadays, isn't he? No tribute CD or compilation can come out without a Dylan track, it seems, and Hollywood is after the songwriter with the Oscar.
This T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack is superb, with or without the new Dylan track. There's Taj Mahal, Jimmy Reed (with some very Highway 61 Revisited blues harp on Found Love), Slim Harpo, Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson, amongst others. And the Dylan track, Waitin' for You, is just a triumph, with a queasy waltz-time carnival swing, and a old-timey feel that's all "Love and Theft". At first it sounds like a musical joke, a corny fairground riff, then the words come to redeem it. As on "Love and Theft", the rhymes are all very simple, but the triumph is in the middle of the lines and the way in which the words throughout fit the feel of the whole. If it were a vaudeville/music hall old-timey song, it would have a very simple, very predictable rhyming structure (day/say/way; all/fall; tight/goodnight; sweet/beat; true/you; game/same; head/dead/spread) and it has an appropriately easy-paced sing-alonga-Bob swing. The tune goes round and round in your head for hours after it's over. The genius is in the way the lines accumulate, and the little touches of detail that enliven them:
And she's a-doin' the same,
And the whiskey playin' (?) into my head.
The fiddler's arm has gone dead,
And talk is beginning to spread...
(There's a lovely vocal touch at the end of that stanza: all the words are evenly-paced, except for the last one, which appropriately enough spreads itself out all across the end of the line. A great example of a subtle Dylan touch in the middle of what sounds at first hearing like a clod-hopping beat-driven tune.)
Is startin' to fall.
I lost my gal
At the Boatman's Ball.
The night has a thousand hearts and eyes.
Hope may vanish, but it never dies...
Another deal gone down,
Another man done gone.
You put up with it all,
And you carry on.
Something holdin' you back,
But you'll come through.
I'd bet the world and everything in it on you.
Another song about survival against the odds, delivered with panache and humour. Worth the cost of the CD on its own of course, but the rest of the CD is also great, so a real must-have.
3. Bits and Pieces from the Internet:
Invisible Republicanism: Greil Marcus' Negro Problem by Benj DeMott, from the "newspaper of the radical imagination", First of the Month (www.firstofthemonth.org/music/music_demott_invisible.html)
Event Report: Jill Furmanovsky's "BobQuest" by Richard Marshall, from 3 A.M. Magazine (www.3ammagazine.com/litarchives/nov2001/furmanovsky.html/)
Both of these I picked up via Expecting Rain . What would we do without it? The latter comes from last year, but was new to me. In it, Richard Marshall comes (a bit late admittedly, but better late than never, eh?) to the realization that Dylan is both more and less than the High Art Guru (or as he puts it, the artist in a "po-faced, serious, white European Romantic" context) that he is often made out to be in the rock meeja. Actually, he tries to blame The "High Art" bullshit on us "miserabalist Bobcats. Sadcats!" (hey thanks, chum). He obviously hasn't read Freewheelin', and so doesn't know that there's actually very little we take seriously.
Anyway, the upshot of the very well written piece turns out to be that, having heard lots of anecdotes about Bob from people who actually know him, and especially Dave Stewart, Marshall comes to see that Dylan is really just nutty, eccentric, old, jaunty and ultimately likeable - which we could have told him in the first place, I suppose. Isn't that who keeps us hypnotised; not the High Art Poet who may or may not be better than Keats, but the weird, funny, very human man who makes us laugh when he does his daft little dances on stage, makes us cringe and laugh when he launches into crazy little monologues in prize ceremonies, and then makes us gasp with wonder at the magic in the songs? We love the fact that he's as mad as a hatter, and that he's still laughing at life, his fellow humans, and himself, even from within the apparent bleakness of some of his work.
Marshall's piece made me very much want to see Furmanovsky's photos of Dylan. Does anyone know where they might be? There doesn't seem to be a published book.
The other article intrigued me because it was about Greil Marcus and Invisible Republic, a book that made a real impact on me when I read it because it gave me a new perspective on the Basement Tapes, as I've said elsewhere. Whatever you think of it as a style, you've got to admit that Marcus writes like no-one else. It's an original take on things, perhaps one that's past its sell-by date now - as I think could be argued of his review of "Love and Theft", which for me missed the mark by a very long way - but at least it's always been different.
DeMott doesn't like it, for one very particular reason. He takes as his jumping-off points the fact that Dylan himself has said that Marcus overplayed the connections between his (Dylan's) work and Harry Smith's Anthology of Folk Music. Of course, we know that in any given statement Dylan may be dissembling, to draw people away from anything which may label and therefore tie him down; it's something he's always done. DeMott, however, links this with what he sees as Dylan's recent "blacking-up" in "Love and Theft". Not only does the title of the album come from Eric Lott's book about black-face minstrelsy (a very excellent book incidentally, and one that every Dylan fan should read), but Dylan also self-consciously gives some of the songs on it "colored voicings". (DeMott doesn't say which songs he's thinking of, but I immediately thought of Po' Boy, Mississippi, of course High Water, and Lonesome Day Blues).
DeMott's main premise is that Marcus is "deaf to the cultural and political resonances of African American music", and that his insistence on the primacy of Folk, rather than Blues or R&B, influences on Dylan's work ( and the Basement Tapes in particular, of course) gives the racist game away. In Kill Devil Hills (the imaginary town peopled by the characters from the Basement Tapes songs), "you don't see many black people" -Marcus' own words. DeMott argues that, throughout his writings about Dylan, Marcus chooses to ignore the conscious break from the restraints and "tight thinking" of folkiedom that Dylan made, and the clear influences on his work of Black music, especially, he suggests (using evidence of harmonica solos in 1966) the "improvisational imperative in black musics", including of course jazz. The best of the Basement Tapes songs, I think, are those driven by improvisation. Think of the brilliant subvocality of I'm Not There (1956), for example.
Dylan was an R&B man long before he was a folkie (or indeed even a man). We all know that from the evidence of his Hibbing boyhood friends. Blues songs and resonances were everywhere on Dylan's first album, and some of Dylan's very earliest recorded efforts were with black artists - Victoria Spivey, Big Joe Williams (I won't mention Harry Belafonte, as it won't, I think, help the argument). He has always sung Blues songs, and sung the praises of Bluesmen. Big Joe Turner and Charley Patton figure in "Love and Theft" of course, Blind Willie McTell is another obvious reference; Robert Johnson's lines are dropped though many songs; The Mississippi Sheiks are a strong influence on World Gone Wrong... the list could go on and on, and has been widely discussed elsewhere.
In older age (I can't bring myself to write "old age", it doesn't seem right) Dylan can be seen as turning into the authentic grizzled, world-weary Bluesman he's always wanted to be. The evolution - not the disintegration, as some would have it - of his voice helps no end.
I admit I hadn't noticed for myself the colour-bar in Marcus' Kill Devil Hills and neighbouring "Smithtown", but I think DeMott is right to suggest it's there. Why should Dock Boggs be so prominent a citizen, and not Robert Johnson? Or Blind Willie McTell? There are plenty of black voices in the Anthology, after all. Where are the experiences of the millions of Southern African-Americans whom history does not name? Wouldn't those experiences be articulated, among those singing and dancing in dozens of drinking joints in the seedier, and therefore more interesting, parts of downtown Kill Devil Hills? Wouldn't they be articulated, above all, in songs about survival against the odds? Wouldn't that be exactly where Dylan would choose to spend his evenings if he happened to be in town? Can't you imagine him there, standing in the doorway on a hot summer night, listening to the jukebox, and watching the darkness fall?
DeMott makes a
compelling and well-argued case against Marcus, and I came away with an
instinctive feeling that there's much in it that's true. Read it for
yourself, and see if you agree.
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