Alias Anything You Want

by Paula K. V. Radice

Two new books to write about this month, both very enjoyable, but very different in style and substance. 

First the fun, then down to the more serious stuff. Brits and Bobs - Bob Dylan in the British Isles (published by Eye 5), edited and compiled by Steve Butterworth, is as it suggests a bits and pieces look at the times that Bob has visited Britain, and is a highly entertaining read. In large paperback format, it gathers together pictures, photos, statistics, newspaper reviews and individual reminiscences (both of the audiences and some of the musicians involved) of the 141 British shows that Bob has played in Britain , along with some of his other artistic endeavours that have occurred here, like the filming of Don't Look Back and of Hearts of Fire.  Its all held together with a very irreverent, very British, commentary that pokes fun equally and fairly at the strangeness of the artist and his audience; I particularly enjoyed “The Biggies Guide to the Concert Go-ers from Hell” section. 

Dylan definitely does have an affinity to these Isles and enjoys being here, and showed it most conclusively at the three final shows in London of last years tour. And being a British Dylan fan is very different to being an American, or a German, or a Scandinavian one, I think. The Dylan community is very tight here, very interconnected, and we dont have the huge distances to cover to get to shows, or to each other, that Americans, Canadians, Australians have. It is perfectly possible (work permitting) to travel to every show in Britain and meet up with the same people at every location. We have frequent social events (local meetings, annual events like the John Green Day, Conventions every so often) that enable us all to keep in touch with each other and build a communal experience from the times we see Dylan in concert. Plus, of course, the fact that were all completely crackers. This book distils all that into a very pleasurable and amusing read: Dylan from a British perspective. It can be obtained from Steve Butterworth at Eye 5, 29 Tenterfields, Great Dunmow, Essex, CAA6 1HJ. 

On a more academic and serious note altogether is Alias Bob Dylan Revisited by Stephen Scobie (Red Deer Press, and available from Amazon). Scobie is one of my very favourite writers on Bob Dylan (following my tenet that only real poets get to the very heart of what Dylan is about) and I have been waiting for the publication of this with great anticipation. To say that it is a reworking of his 1991 Alias Bob Dylan would be to do it a large disservice, as it so fully expanded and revised as to be effectively a new work altogether. And a very good work it is indeed. 

Scobie takes as his premise the belief that throughout his artistic career, Dylan has taken up two stances, those of “Prophet” and “Trickster”. He examines these through a series of themes, including “alias”, “masks”, “signature”, “self portrait”, "ghost”, “quotation”; themes that occur and recur throughout the songs, the interviews, the films. Dylans career is divided into three phases: “The Years of Creation”, “The Years of Commitment” and “The Years of Performance”. 

In every case, Scobies treatment is articulate, persuasive and insightful. Although it is by definition academic (and more specifically, post-modern) in its approach, it is never patronising or inaccessible. The book is a joy to read, especially in the way it makes connections between different genres. The explanation of the interconnection of themes within Renaldo and Clara, for example, is the most convincing I have ever come across (and a thousand times more comprehensible than Bob’s own attempts to explain it). It also gives us some new biographical information, particularly on the relationship between Dylan and Alien Ginsberg. The only faults I would find with it are of omission: sometimes the examinations are tantalisingly short, and leave you wanting more. For example, the discussions of NewPony and of "Love and Theft"  are great, but too brief and, infuriatingly, the book has come out too early for Scobie to have examined masked and anonymous. I really hope he will provide a postscript, perhaps in one of the Dylan magazines, that will allow us to find out his take on that extraordinary piece of work (if you read the book with the film in your mind, there are connections everywhere - the dying/absent/inadequate father, the ghost of Oscar Vogel, the vaudeville humour, the masks and aliases - which tie masked and anonymous to the themes present in Dylan’s songs). 

I cant recommend Alias Bob Dylan Revisited highly enough. If you found Ricks hard-going (and I know a lot of people did) then this may well be the book for you.