Pressing On

by Paula Radice


No graphics this issue, I’m afraid. My PC at home has given up the ghost – coincidentally (I think) while I was updating my Dylan booklist – and is apparently beyond salvation, so I have been struggling on with the laptop from school. I’ve been using the nifty new British Telecom Internet booths to check my emails and keep tabs on my bidding on eBay, and they’re surprisingly good, but apologies if you’ve contacted me recently and I’ve not replied immediately. I can’t get into my email address book, either, so please bear with me if you haven’t heard from me in a while…

Anyway, it’s been a busy month, and there’s been more than enough Dylan material to read. They’re coming thick and fast at the moment, and I’m going to try to review three here. They’re a very mixed bunch, and if you’re not a completist collector, I’m sure you will feel able to pick and choose what you buy. They are not all indispensable, by any means…

Let’s start with the ridiculous before we attempt anything even tending towards the sublime. Bob Dylan: Gypsy Troubadour by Robert G. Anstey (West Coast Paradise Publishing) is a dire little self-published piece of almost complete nonsense, by someone who has been a fan of Dylan’s since 1965, without apparently reading anything ever published about the man (despite the fact that there is a short bibliography included) or picking up any of the current thinking about his work.

Mostly extremely irritating to read because of its lack of depth and its terminal addiction to the sloppy cliché (“Today Bob Dylan remains as a true troubadour with a gypsy spirit”), Gypsy Troubadour is under-researched and laughably superficial, and easily the hardest Dylan book to read since Chris Rowley’s awful Blood on the Tracks. It reads like the worst sort of undergraduate essay – I should know, I’ve marked a few in my time – the sort where the writer knows exactly the minimum amount of background information about a subject but feels the need to rehash it in the most pompous, self-aggrandizing way possible. Comments are always sweeping and total, with no room for discussion or doubt.

Prepare to laugh. Here is Anstey’s considered opinion of Bob’s 1960s corpus of electric songs (as opposed to the “protest” songs, of course):

Lyrically I personally find the words to be a little tiresome, forced and definitely stuck in the 1960s but there is no denying the power there. In fact, Dylan wasn’t really saying anything in those songs generally and maybe that was the beauty of them in the 1960s, but today I like a song to say something, to give me a message or a story or something that makes me want to hear them over and over again.

So much for Desolation Row and Visions of Johanna then, eh?

Anstey appears to have an almost complete lack of comprehension of anything Dylan has done since 1964, and writes off everything since the ‘60s anyway (there is, for example, a breakdown of Dylan’s career, decade by decade, that covers the 1980s in just two paragraphs and the 1990s in three). Time Out of Mind garners the staggering criticism that “some of the songs were merely blues progressions with not a lot of fire underneath them” (which ones exactly, he doesn’t specify). The songs on “Love and Theft” (which Anstey does not realize needs inverted commas) are dismissed as “fictitious and superficial”, “simple and trite”. Apparently we poor deluded souls who go to see him in concert these days do so “more because of who is he is rather than what he will be playing”: all Dylan concert performances now, according to Anstey, contain only deliberate “mutilations” of previously great songs.

Dylan will doubtless be devastated to know that Anstey sees him “as more of a cultural icon than a creative force in the music industry”. I personally see Robert G. Anstey more as the producer of expensive toilet paper than a Dylan writer with any authority. A book definitely to be missed, unless you are a sad completist collector like me who has to buy this sort of rubbish and just sigh deeply as it gets put it on the bookshelves.

Phew, that was fun. Normally, I try to be as balanced and positive about reviews as I can be, because there is nearly always something of merit in any Dylan book, and I want to be fair to the author. It’s not often that a book with no discernible merits comes along.

The next book, Restless Pilgrim. The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan by Scott M. Marshall (with Marcia Ford), published by Relevant Books, is rather harder to review. My initial thoughts about it were very mixed (I’m tempted to say it’s a “curate’s egg”, but the sacerdotal reference would be inappropriate – much too High Church!). I noticed with disappointment that it is yet another Dylan book which purports to be a serious analysis of an aspect of Dylan’s art, but yet it doesn’t have an index. Why are so many Dylan books published without indices? It seems to me to be, if anything, symptomatic of an insecurity in the minds of some writers about Dylan that their subject is, in the final end (as Bob might say), really worthy of serious academic treatment. Well, either he is or he isn’t. Let’s make our minds up, eh? If we’re writing works that are to be of use to researchers, academics and writers in the future, they must have indices. End of preaching rant (until next time).

Restless Pilgrim starts very well. The introduction, by Marcia Ford, neatly sums up the twists and turns of the “is-he-isn’t-he, Christian-or-Jew?” debate that have dogged Dylan since 1979, with a light humour which takes as its model the “Well, you never know” line that Dylan himself took in many of the interviews which touched on the issue of his religious adherences.

From there on in, though, things get a little more problematic. Scott M. Marshall, as we know from his other writings in The Bridge, Isis and On the Tracks, knows his Dylan – very much unlike the hapless Mr. Anstey – and also knows how to write a convincing sentence. The whole book is easy and interesting to read. But – and it’s a big but – the premises of the book are, for me, built on sand (you’ll have to forgive the Biblical references, I’m afraid: I’m deliberately listening to Saved as I’m typing this, and it’s obviously affecting me…).

When does Dylan’s “spiritual journey” start? Although the religious references in Dylan’s pre-1979 songs are mentioned, and the assertion is made (rightly, I think we would all agree) that Bob’s songs have always marked him out as a seeker after spiritual truth, the impression that Restless Pilgrim very much gives is that the only really interesting part of Bob’s spiritual journey came after his experience of Christ’s presence. This leads to some crucial inattention to earlier developments. For example, John Wesley Harding does not get the attention it would seem to me it deserves as a marker stone along the way of Dylan’s journey.

For the main part, and I believe damagingly, this post-’79 emphasis is due to an implied (and sometimes explicitly stated) belief in the sheer rightness of Christian belief that skews much of the analysis and makes the book difficult to read in an objective way. There is no doubt that it is preaching to the converted: Relevant Books is a Christian publishing house, with an associated website magazine that covers, according to an advert inside the back cover of the book, “God, life and progressive culture like nothing else…from an intelligent, God-centered perspective”.

Now, there’s nothing wrong, of course, with coming at Dylan from a Christian perspective. Bert Cartwright did it brilliantly in The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan. For most of this book it’s just an undertone that can be discerned rather than a prevailing force. There are, however, several occasions when Christian exclusivity takes over and leads Marshall into full-out editorializing. For example, when discussing Dylan’s choice of songs on the 1987 tour, and especially in his concerts in Israel, he states that:

The fact that the songs represented a mixed message is due to perhaps history’s greatest tragedy, that Jesus has largely been dismissed by Jews though He was himself a Jew.

Far worse is the prejudice revealed in this phrase:

Dylan’s family life [as a child in Hibbing] was similar to that of many Jewish households in America, in which Judaism is just enough of a factor to be an influence but not enough to become an obsession.

Ignore for a moment the fact that nowhere in the book does Marshall provide much evidence at all as to the nature of the Zimmerman family’s Jewishness in the 1940s and 1950s: the offence in that sentence lies fully in the word “obsession”. Would a family practising committed Christian observance be described as “obsessive”? One guesses not. At best, the use of the word “obsession” is extremely patronizing. At worst, it is veiled religious bigotry. No wonder so many of Dylan’s pre-1979 fans were worried at his apparent conversion. Lack of tolerance is the danger in all fundamentalist religious stances, as Dylan himself seemed to demonstrate in his anti-gay statements in concert “raps” during 1979 and 1980. It’s never pleasant to come across.

Having said that, there are also structural problems in Restless Pilgrim. Post-1979 chronological coverage of Dylan’s career aims to be comprehensive but falls into a double trap of being both superficial, and at times, irrelevant. What significance could there be, for example, in Dylan’s involvement in an episode of Dharma and Greg in 1999? Other, much more significant events, like the writing and recording of Neighbourhood Bully, receive practically no mention and certainly no analysis. Not all of the Bible-laden songs of Oh Mercy are discussed, and those that are are each covered in a single, sometimes very short, paragraph (indeed, most of the paragraphs in this book are short, which intensifies the impression that nothing is covered in sufficient depth). There are many occasions when one wants to know more, or to see issues discussed from a wider variety of perspectives.

However, Restless Pilgrim is written very readably, and is worth investigating. It made me listen to Saved again, and that can’t be bad. The sincerity and power of the songs can’t be denied, when all’s said and done.

Olof’s Files – a Bob Dylan Performance Guide (published by Hardinge Simpole) is a very different kettle of fish, a massive reference work comprising twelve volumes and an Index (yes, an Index!), and collecting together all the information tirelessly compiled on the Internet by Olof Björner. I’ve said before how much admiration and respect I have for anyone that has the ability, dedication and patience to undertake these hugely detailed tasks of reference, because I just don’t possess those talents myself. It is a vast undertaking, and a significant updating of the information available previously in printed works (Krogsgaard, Dundas, Heylin). The amount of time it must have taken is just staggering.

The volumes are being published sporadically, and not in chronological order, for reasons that haven’t been made clear. So far, I have seen Volumes 1 (1958-9) and 7 (1991-2) and the Index, but only in paperback. The hardbacks, apparently, are on their way. It will be up to others to assess the accuracy of the listings, but my guess is that, as the Files have been on the Internet for some years, any glaring inaccuracies or omissions would have been spotted. It certainly looks very impressive on the page, and I can foresee myself using it in a variety of ways. It is a highly worthwhile, if not indispensable, undertaking.

However, I have very serious reservations about the way it has been produced. The most important criticism is that, for the money the publishers are asking for it, Olof’s Files does not constitute value for money in any way. Each paperback will cost £25; each hardback will be £35. The whole series will therefore cost the paperback collector over £300, and the collector of hardbacks over £450.

As I said above, I haven’t seen the hardbacks yet, but the production values of the paperbacks leaves everything to be desired. The A4 books have only a plain-coloured card cover. Graphics are absolutely minimal – a few Xeroxed handbills, singles sleeves etc, and a few ( a very few – only three or four per volume) tiny black and white in concert photos. All of which is highly disappointing. How can Hardinge Simpole possibly believe that their prices are appropriate? I may be jumping the gun on the hardbacks – perhaps they’ll come with hand tooled antelope-hide covers and previously unseen colour photographs on every other page – but the paperback at least is very significantly overpriced. £15 would be fairer; and even then the sheer number of volumes is going to lead to a full-set price that most collectors (I anticipate) will not be happy or indeed prepared to pay. It’s a very great shame, because Olof’s Files promises to be the first in a series of Dylan writings the publisher is producing, and it could all have been much more exciting.

I fully intended, this month, to write about the Neil Corcoran-edited “Do You Mr. Jones?” Bob Dylan With the Poets and Professors, but I want to do it justice, so will hold it over again ‘til next month. It’s a significant work, and I’ve gone on long enough already. If you see it before then, buy it: you won’t regret it.