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NOBODY CAN STOP (SIMPLE TWISTS OF FATE)...

NOBODY CAN…

 BY PAULA RADICE

 

No Bob picture this month (I’m at my parents’ for Easter, and as at Christmas, my Dad’s computer won’t allow itself to be defiled with pictures of a seedy rockstar), but two book reviews, to make up for it...

First, though, wasn’t The John Green Day (or weekend, as it is to many of us) great? I really enjoyed myself, and it was lovely to meet up with so many people. Richard and I are getting to be dab hands at the reception desk, if I say so myself, and it is an excellent way to meet everyone coming in (and flog them some books...). Despite the weariness of negotiating a series of engineering works on the train system on the return journey, it was a super weekend, and really made me smile. Thank you, friends, as Bob might say. I may even, at some distant point in the future, recover from the excitement of being shown the Freewheelin' handshake... A very big Well Done to everyone involved with the organizing, which went (or appeared to go, which is the most important thing), like clockwork. And there wasn’t even a fire alarm in the middle of the night.

So, onto the books...Is it me, or are they coming thicker and faster than ever before at the moment? Perhaps it just seems that way because I have spent all my money on a holiday in Hibbing in August, and have very little left for the deluge of books with which we are being assailed at the moment...Still, these two were worth their price:

A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks, by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard.

There are so very many books about Dylan nowadays that it has become difficult to see, lately, how anyone could find an unexplored angle about which to write. The ever-increasing tide of biographies and critical analyses sweeps over the bookcases, and the completist reader begins to doubt that there are many original thoughts left out there...

Andy Gill's book not only covers (and uncovers) original ground, but allows us a sustained look at a critical part of Dylan's creative process - his work in the recording studio. It has a wholly novel focus for a Dylan book, in the day-to-day, song-to-song, process of recording an album, in the interactions between the musicians, and in the technical details of the engineering, all fascinating stuff.

The story of the evolution of Blood on the Tracks is a fascinating one, and one of which we were largely unaware, and the beauty and usefulness of this book lies in its access to the memories of those who were there (except for Dylan, naturally). Most musicians who have worked with Dylan remain shy of talking in detail about the man, for fear of offending him, one often thinks, and jeopardising any chances - however slim - of working with him again. These musicians, and especially the Minneapolis ones, don't have the same reluctance: their involvement with Blood on the Tracks was of lightening-strike improbability, and after years of going without credit for their work they appear only too eager to put their memories and achievement on record, to great effect.

The picture of Dylan which emerges is not always a very flattering one, but it is one which allows us to see how he - in a setting in which he is not always very comfortable - gets the best from himself and others around him. The extent of Dylan's musicianship impresses even the virtuoso musicians around him; his unwillingness to compromise spontaneity for explanation leaves some bewildered and frustrated, some exhilarated; the music is what - always - matters most.

The least convincing sections of the book - and the least comfortable - are those which seek to explore Dylan's relationship with his brother David, who was chiefly responsible for the re-recording of the Blood on the Tracks songs with Minnesotan musicians. Who can really say what goes on within family relationships? A lot of the time, not even family members themselves know the whole truth about the ways in which they react to the ties that bind them. And the evidence here for the nature of David and Bob’s relationship is very slight: a few remembered instances of childhood teasing and cruelty; a few reminiscences from David's friends (with their own biases); a lot of - wholly unhelpful - analogies with sibling relationships in the Old Testament. Nothing first-hand, of course, from either of the brothers. A few quickly-passed-over thoughts on the matter would have been more than sufficient: the attempt to turn these scraps into a fuller investigation of the dynamics between the superstar and his overshadowed brother (as the book would have it) is not successful, and perhaps unworthy in the light of the gems in the rest of the book.

Tangled Up in the Bible: Bob Dylan and Scripture, by Michael J. Gilmour

I had it as my New Year’s Resolution last year to read the Bible from cover to cover, on the basis that what's good enough for Bob is good enough for me, but I must confess that I didn't get through it. I know now that I bought the wrong edition: perhaps I will try again with a King James one, as it's obviously the version that Bob best responds to, as this book clearly argues.

It's always been amazing to me, from earlier books that have examined the impact of Scriptural writing on Dylan - most notably and sagely, of course, the late Bert Cartwright’s great study The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan - just how strongly biblical language resonates through Dylan songs. Gilmour's book follows modestly where Cartwright trod the path, in identifying some of the instances where the influence is most discernible, and there are many interesting revelations on a textual level, for example the biblical precedents (in Proverbs) of the “strange woman” who recurs in Dylan songs (for example in I and I - the “strange woman sleeping in my bed”), which I, certainly, and I suspect many others, would not have come to independently.

Gilmour sets out his aims for this book clearly. It is not intended to be a systematic treatment, but is “[In effect]...a collection of essays on specific themes and texts, each exploring ways that the Bible is present in the selected songs”, an approach which Gilmour concedes is “admittedly myopic”. Unlike Cartwright, he does not affix songs to phases in Dylan’s religiosity, or seek to use them to analyse where Dylan was at any given time during his spiritual journeying. Where others have been very literal in their treatment of lyrics, Gilmour tends more to the Paul Williams style of emotional relationship with the feel of the songs, seeking to identify patterns and themes within Dylan’s approach to Scripture. The book is dedicated, for example, “To Bob Dylan, my favourite theologian".

This does have its dangers. Reading the book as a non-theologian, it is possible in many chapters to feel that links are becoming rather fanciful and far-fetched. Gilmour’s argument, for example, that the whole of Empire Burlesque stands as a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount left me completely cold. There are, of course, themes within songs like Tight Connection that have similarities with New Testament passages, but aren't there always bound to be what Gilmour terms “intertextualities” when different art forms discuss the same thing ie. the nature of the human condition? Of much more relevance, it would seem to me, is the discussion of what Dylan feels he means when he specifically mentions the Sermon on the Mount, as he does in Up to Me, about which Gilmour has some interesting things to say.

I would disagree, too, with much of Gilmour’s reading of "Love and Theft". Describing it as “Dylan's retelling of the exodus story”, Gilmour seems to have missed many of the album’s undertones and ironies. He is particularly wrong, I think, about Moonlight, the “gentle” protagonist of which he sees as “the voice of the Son of God”, and whose appeals to the girl to meet him in the moonlight he describes as “offering to help with the [exodus] journey”, ie. across the river/Red Sea. The suggestion that the singer’s crooned blandishments might be an enticement to help the girl on an altogether more sinister sort of journey seems not to have occurred to Gilmour at all. (Of course, he hadn't had a chance to see the Victoria’s Secret ad before he wrote this book). Let’s hope that the girl herself is rather more cautious and street-smart: her paramour is much more likely to be a maidens preyer that the answer to a maiden’s prayer.(1)

The "Love and Theft” chapter, chapter 5, is full of similarly wrong-footed attempts to fit a Mosaic reading to the songs. Perhaps the most tenuous is the footnoted suggestion that the “Rosie's bed” line in Mississippi is intended to sound like “Red Sea bed”!

I think one of the problems that Gilmour has is that his self-confessed biblical myopia does not always allow him to see the depth of other influences on Dylan. Yes, floods in songs will always have an echo of Noah’s Great Flood, but the very real nineteenth- and twentieth- century floods of the southern states left a deep imprint (tidemark?) on blues songs, and their influence on Dylan cannot be ignored. It needn’t be a question of which one or the other - Bible or Blues - is the predominant influence (with Dylan it is always likely to be a mixture of the two, with lots of other things in the mix as well, like Japanese gangster novels!) but the influence of the latter is not given nearly enough discussion here. Another example: Gilmour discusses which Biblical Lazarus is likely to be the one that pops up in Tarantula - without mentioning the Po' Lazarus of song fame, a real oversight when discussing a piece of writing which is steeped in singers and songs.

I wouldn't like to give the impression that I didn't enjoy reading Tangled Up in the Bible. It is very accessible, and nicely written, by someone who clearly knows a great deal about his subject, and whose respect and love for Dylan’s songs shines out very clearly. Nowhere does Gilmour get bogged down in overly academic treatments of issues (indeed, in more than a few places, I was left disappointed that he hadn’t expanded on his reading of individual songs, for example, on the “ancient footsteps” in Every Grain of Sand, his discussion of which only takes two pages and could usefully have been much longer).

Accepted as a selective and subjective study, Tangled up in the Bible has much to offer. It makes a nice change, above all, to read an author who presents his views on Dylan humbly and self-critically. As he himself says, “How can we ever know, and more importantly, does it really matter? We can't escape ambiguity.” Amen to that, brother, Amen.


(1)
This pun is dedicated, with humility, to Christopher Ricks.

 

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